Who Will Succeed DeVos? With Senate Control Up for Grabs, Democrats Hunt for ‘Unicorn’ to Lead Department Beset by Crisis

Clockwise from top left: Cindy McCain, Sonja Santelises, Randi Weingarten, and Freeman Hrabowski (Getty Images)

The most reliable product of elections is speculation, and the 2020 presidential campaign is no exception. Even while votes are still being counted, chatter proliferates over how big President-elect Joe Biden’s victory margin will grow, what policies will change, and who will be named to the top government jobs. That means education observers spent much of the past week pondering the identity of the nation’s next education secretary.

Some in the political press have tipped teachers’ union leaders like Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia as early favorites, citing Biden’s ties to organized labor. Such a suggestion would likely horrify Democrats for Education Reform, the party’s leading voice on accountability and school choice, which has circulated its own list of big-city superintendents. One leading contender, California scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, has already withdrawn from consideration.

It’s a period when conjecture is thickly tinged with advocacy. But according to Maria Ferguson, the former head of George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy, virtually no one outside the Democratic Party leadership has any meaningful insight into who will lead the Department of Education in a few months’ time.

“Nobody knows what the hell they’re talking about,” Ferguson said in an interview. “This is the ultimate parlor game, and everybody wants to get their word in. But right now, this administration is focused on getting the election certified and actually making this transition happen.”

The guesswork is made even more fruitless this year by a level of political uncertainty that is far greater than normal. To all but the most committed Trump supporters, it is clear that Biden has secured an insurmountable advantage and will lead the U.S. government for the next four years. But partisan control over the Senate, which will have to confirm Biden’s cabinet nominees, won’t be known until two special elections are held in Georgia on January 5. With a sweep of both races, Democrats would claim 50 seats and the ability to confirm any Biden appointee (with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote). Anything less, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will hold a veto over Biden appointments.

A colossal amount of leverage, therefore, will fall to voters in the state with the closest election result in the country. And even after what could be a sharp-edged confirmation process, whoever succeeds Betsy DeVos will need to grapple with a dizzying level of logistical and educational adversity, from dispensing pandemic funds to restoring departmental morale. Several experts told The 74 that Biden should look for a nominee who could command respect on Capitol Hill and go to work immediately to mitigate the learning catastrophe inflicted by COVID-19. Joshua Starr, CEO of the nonprofit educators’ association Phi Delta Kappa, said the incoming administration might pick its battles by naming a “safe, moderate bet” who could breeze through Senate hearings.

“Given all the other stuff going on, I can’t imagine they’re going to want to burn a lot of political capital on the choice for secretary of education,” Starr said. “Reopening schools is the number-one issue on everyone’s mind, so I think they’re going to want someone in there who is a credible administrator and knows how to run things.”

Most of the candidates who have surfaced in media coverage share a similar profile: female or nonwhite leaders who come from the ranks of state and district superintendents — as did recent secretaries like Rod Paige and John King — and have focused deeply on educational equity. But Jamie Fasteau, a Washington consultant and longtime Democratic education staffer, said that the task of leading federal education policy will also call for “a different kind of leader,” one capable of deft coordination across multiple policy spheres.

“This next secretary will have greater challenges, I think, than any prior secretary,” Fasteau said. “The economic issues tied to COVID, the actual task of physically getting kids back into schools, and accounting for and attending to all that has been lost for them — that’s on top of the actual agency repair that has to occur. Someone with the mix of skills to do that would fall in the sweet spot.”

The uncertain Senate

The foremost challenge facing Biden’s team is political. Over the next few months, they will need to prepare for a nomination without knowing exactly who will vote on it.

The Democratic candidates in the two Georgia runoff elections will face tough odds of unseating incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. If they don’t, Biden’s nominee will only make it through by winning the support of moderate Republicans like Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Even beyond the question of which party holds the majority, it’s unclear at the moment who will chair the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), which will vote first on any nomination to lead the department. Outgoing Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary himself and perhaps the Republicans’ most respected expert on schools, has led the committee since 2015. Assuming a Republican-led Senate, Alexander’s retirement in January would transfer the gavel to North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, currently under investigation for stock transactions he made earlier this year. If Burr doesn’t accede to the chairmanship, it would instead fall to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a conservative firebrand who has most recently drawn headlines for clashing with top health expert Anthony Fauci on the nation’s COVID response.

David Cleary, Alexander’s chief of staff and a veteran of Senate nomination fights, said that the HELP Committee chair held “extraordinary power” to sink or approve potential candidates.

“If he doesn’t like the nominee, he just doesn’t schedule a markup or a hearing,” he said. “Burr is probably more of an institutionalist. He’d be tough, but fair. Paul is more iconoclastic, so to speak. I think he’d probably be harder to get nominations through. He doesn’t mind being isolated and saying, ‘I’m not going to let this happen.’”

Such a scenario could eliminate the candidacies of American Federation for Teachers President Randi Weingarten and former National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. Republicans bitterly oppose the influence of teachers’ unions in national education policy, and Weingarten in particular has been energetically involved in progressive activism for some years. (In a statement provided to The 74, Weingarten said she was “honored that my name is being mentioned for education secretary, but I am very happy in my current job as an advocate for working families in the labor movement and a champion for public education—our two great opportunity agents.”)

While acknowledging that Weingarten would likely prove too unpalatable for a GOP majority, Cleary mused that Eskelsen Garcia might receive a more welcome reception among Republicans like Collins and Murkowski. Under her leadership, the NEA cultivated partnerships with congressional Republicans without forfeiting their status as perhaps the most powerful organizing force in Democratic politics. Cleary said that the union’s efforts in getting him elected could earn them his gratitude going forward.

“If you really want to give Biden credit for how he won, first you have to say it was black women, and then you have to say it was NEA,” he argued. “They were the ones out there knocking the damn doors and making phone calls.”

But divided government might also make a federal appointment less attractive to both union leaders, who already enjoy almost unparalleled influence from their current position as outside actors. Absent the blue landslide that would have cleared the way for the president-elect’s education agenda — complete with universal childcare and a massive increase in Title I funding — the next secretary will focus more on cleanup and COVID mitigation. Big chunks of policy that interest teachers, including pay raises and changes to standardized testing, will likely be off the table, said Starr.

“What’s the message you’re sending by putting a labor leader in there if you’re not also going to send a very clear message that all those things labor leaders want are on the table? I don’t get why you would narrow your natural base [by nominating Weingarten or Eskelsen Garcia], unless you plan on swinging for the fences with some of these really substantive policy issues.”

The complications of wrangling GOP votes might yield nominees from unexpected corners. Heath Brown, a political scientist at the City University of New York’s John Jay College who studies presidential transitions, suggested a name that hasn’t been widely discussed: Cindy McCain, widow of the late Sen. John McCain, who crossed party lines to endorse Biden’s candidacy. An effective surrogate with many admirers on the Hill, McCain can even boast of some public health credentials as the founder of the American Volunteer Medical Team, a nonprofit organization that organizes travel for doctors to disaster zones.

“She is a former special education teacher,” Brown observed, noting that Biden has previously pledged to name a former K-12 instructor to the post. “She has joined the Biden transition team. She’s somebody, I suspect, who would not have a problem getting through confirmation. And the Biden-Harris team has indicated they want to appoint with some level of bipartisanship, which sure isn’t easy to do these days.”

In an appearance on “The View” earlier this week, McCain notably did not rule out service in a Biden cabinet.

‘A different kind of leader’

If McCain hasn’t shown up on many lists of contenders, a few names have appeared prominently: Baltimore superintendent Sonja Santelises, Chicago superintendent Janice Jackson, Seattle superintendent Denise Juneau, and Boston superintendent Brenda Casselius. All are well-regarded women with experience leading state school systems or large urban districts (or sometimes both).

If one were selected, it would be in some senses a reversion to form. Paige, who served as George W. Bush’s first education secretary, was a well-regarded superintendent of schools in Houston before making the leap to federal prominence. Arne Duncan and John King, Obama’s secretaries, led schools in Chicago and New York State, respectively.

But the potential missteps awaiting DeVos’s successor are unprecedented in the history of the department. In addition to energy and skill, the job may call for a level of managerial expertise rare outside of former cabinet-level officials.

“I think the world of Sonja Santelises; I think she’s doing amazing work and would make a fabulous secretary,” said Starr, a former superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country, Montgomery County, Maryland. “But in my view — and I haven’t been a secretary or a state commissioner — the world of running a school district is very different from the world of policy management and political management that you find in the federal department of education. They call for different skills.”

Fasteau sounded a similar note, arguing that formulating national guidance on school reopening in the wake COVID would necessitate massive cross-departmental coordination, along with significant respect from both Congress and the White House.

“Who’s going to stand up there with the head of HHS and the science task force and be part of these reopening conversations in really deep ways?” she asked. “That takes a different kind of leader, somebody who really deeply understands how systems work.”

Apart from the recovery from 2020’s cavalcade of K-12 disasters, Biden’s schools chief will face a bureaucratic challenge of a more prosaic type: Reviving morale in the agency, which has flagged badly during the tenure of Betsy DeVos. Over the past four years, hundreds of career civil servants walked off the job; many department veterans criticized the work of prestigious sub-departments like the Office of Civil Rights, which has issued new regulations on school discipline and campus sexual assault dramatically at odds with those installed under President Obama.

“A little house-cleaning was probably in order…but it’s terrible what has happened to the braintrust that was there,” said Ferguson, who served in the department during the Clinton administration. “A lot of people chose to retire because they didn’t want to work under those conditions, and she made it very inhospitable. It is a big, big undertaking to deal with what schools are dealing with now at the same time you’re trying to rebuild capacity at the department.”

What was needed, Ferguson concluded, was a kind of “unicorn” — a nominee who was easily confirmable, widely respected, experienced in Washington, and steeped in education policy.

Two such players exist, according to several sources: Janet Napolitano, a former governor, homeland security secretary, president of the University of California, and recently defeated Congresswoman Donna Shalala, who previously led the Department of Health and Human Services and has worked as a highly placed university administrator for most of her career.

In addition to Freeman Hrabowski, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, both Napolitano and Shalala have attracted interest as leaders from higher education as opposed to K-12 schools. A selection from that space would both make sense from an organizational standpoint — the department underwrites billions of dollars in college aid annually, dwarfing its funding for elementary and secondary education — and allow Biden to sidestep political divides over K-12 policy areas like school choice that have often ensnared the department.

But universities have been an ideological battleground in recent years as well. While vouching strongly for Hrabowski as a possible nominee, Brown noted that debates over free speech and political indoctrination would almost certainly be raised by Republicans in a confirmation of a present or former college administrator.

“If a former or current university president was nominated and faced a confirmation hearing, I think that issue, which has such salience in some wings of the conservative movement, would be relentless. And that person would have to take on an array of questions on syllabi from former professors and students at their universities. That’s the battle fought in that space that anyone coming out of a university would face.”

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