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Vice President Harris Casts Tie-Breaking Vote to Confirm Lhamon as Education Department’s Top Civil Rights Official

By Mark Keierleber | October 20, 2021

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Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote Wednesday to confirm Catherine Lhamon assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, a position she held during the Obama administration. 

Lhamon, who faced steep opposition from Republicans, will lead the Education Department office in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws in schools, including rules that prohibit discrimination based on race and sex. She secured the post after a combative confirmation hearing in July, followed by a partisan 11-11 vote a month later in which members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee deadlocked on her nomination. Lawmakers voted earlier this month to discharge her nomination from committee and bring it before the full Senate. 

Harris’s vote, which broke a 50-50 tie, followed an effort by Republican lawmakers to block her return to a position she held from 2013 to 2017. She was unanimously confirmed in 2013, but became a lightning rod in several key education debates, including one that looked to hold K-12 schools and universities more accountable for sexual misconduct on campus. 

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that Lhamon’s confirmation will help ensure that schools are “fairer and more just.”

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“She will lead the Department’s vital efforts to ensure our schools and college campuses are free from discrimination on the basis of race, sex and disability and to protect all students’ rights in education,” Cardona said in a media release. “Catherine is one of the strongest civil rights leaders in America and has a robust record of fighting for communities that are historically and presently underserved.” 

In 2011, before Lhamon became assistant secretary, the Obama administration released a “Dear Colleague” letter that instructed educators to investigate sexual misconduct allegations “regardless of where the conduct occurred,” and to use a less-strict “preponderance of the evidence” standard when determining guilt. Eight months into her tenure under former President Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation was secured by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, rescinded the guidance and replaced it with new Title IX regulations in 2020. The Biden administration has already pledged to “restore” the Obama-era guidance.

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Civil rights groups have praised Lhamon as a champion for student equity, but her conservative critics have accused her of being an overzealous bureaucrat who went beyond her legal authority during her previous stint on the job. 

In 2014, the civil rights office used a “Dear Colleague” letter to warn school districts that discipline policies could constitute “unlawful discrimination” if they didn’t mention race but had a “disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.” In June, the Biden administration announced plans to revisit how the Education Department can ensure racial equity in school discipline. 

While Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, Lhamon will be taking up her job at a time when battles over race and gender in schools have become even more divisive, as seen in several states recently moving to bar transgender students from playing sports. 

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