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Ex-teachers union leader seen as leading candidate for Biden's Education secretary

Ex-teachers union leader seen as leading candidate for Biden's Education secretary
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Lily Eskelsen García has emerged as the front-runner to serve as President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenMilitary must better understand sexual assaults to combat them The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE's Education secretary, two sources familiar with the plans told The Hill.

Eskelsen García served as president of the National Education Association (NEA) from 2014 until the end of her term earlier this year. If confirmed, she would be the first Latina to lead the Education Department.

One source described Eskelsen García as the favorite for the job, which they said they expected to go to a Latina. Another source cautioned that a final decision had not been made, saying several candidates were being interviewed for the role.

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Biden could announce his pick for Education secretary as early as this week, one of the sources said.

A transition official did not respond to a request for comment.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) endorsed Eskelsen García for the job earlier this month, as did several Latino advocacy groups. The 11 female members of the CHC wrote to Biden earlier this week urging him to nominate at least two Latinas to his Cabinet. Biden has yet to name a Latina to a Cabinet role.

Eskelsen García would inherit a number of formidable challenges in overseeing the nation’s schools. She would replace Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosErik Prince involved in push for experimental COVID-19 vaccine: report Biden administration reverses Trump-era policy that hampered probes of student loan companies DeVos ordered to testify in student loan forgiveness lawsuit MORE, who has been fiercely opposed by Democrats throughout her four-year tenure.

Eskelsen García would be tasked with implementing Biden’s stated goal of having all children return to in-person learning within the first 100 days of his first term.

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Educators and local officials have been divided over how to best adapt and serve students amid the coronavirus pandemic. Data has shown children are at lower risk for serious complications from coronavirus, but some leaders have still opted for remote learning.

“It’s going to take someone who knows the system as it has been over the last 20-30 years and what it needs now as we recover from this pandemic," said Juan Andrade, president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, who has known Eskelsen García for two decades.

Progressives have pushed for student loan debt forgiveness, an issue that would land at Eskelsen García's feet if she is confirmed.

Eskelsen García began her career in education as a cafeteria worker. She went on to work as an elementary school teacher in Utah, earning teacher of the year honors in the state in 1989. 

More recently, she led the NEA, the country’s largest union, which boasts more than 3 million members. The group backed Biden in the Democratic primary and the general election. Incoming first lady Jill Biden is also a longtime member of the NEA.

Eskelsen García spoke highly of Biden during a recent interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, and she did not deny she was interested in being Education secretary in the Biden administration. 

"It’s an honor to be considered, but right now, regardless of who President-elect Biden picks, I’m grateful, I’m excited we’re about to turn a page," she said with a smile.

Eskelsen García described the Education Department's main mission as "[protecting] our most vulnerable children," noting that the pandemic has disproportionately affected children in low-income and underserved communities. 

Some critics have been skeptical of Eskelsen García running the Education Department. Disability rights groups objected to her potential nomination, citing comments she made in 2015 referring to providing assistance for students who require additional help, describing some of them as "the chronically tarded and medically annoying." She later apologized for the remarks.

People close to Eskelsen García believe she would receive at least some bipartisan support. She had a strong relationship with retiring Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.), and the NEA previously endorsed Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPortman: Republicans are 'absolutely' committed to bipartisan infrastructure bill Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (R-Alaska). Eskelsen García's Utah roots could also earn her support from Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOvernight Defense: Senate panel delays Iraq war powers repeal | Study IDs Fort Hood as least-safe base for female soldiers | Pentagon loosens some COVID-19 restrictions Senate panel delays war authorization repeal after GOP push Eliminate family and child poverty: Richard Nixon may help in today's debate MORE (R-Utah), though one source cautioned the two are not personally close.