Meet the former Utah teacher on the short list for education secretary under President-elect Biden

(AP Photo | Ross D. Franklin) In this April 25, 2018 file photo, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García speaks at the #RedForEd walkout in Phoenix. She is currently on the shortlist to be education secretary under President-elect Joe Biden.

A former Utah educator — who proudly tells her story of rising from lunch lady to leading the nation’s largest teachers union — is now on the short list for education secretary under President-elect Joe Biden.

Lily Eskelsen García is reported to be one of two top contenders for the position under the incoming White House administration, according to The Washington Post. And she’s listed by Politico as “an early favorite.”

“Biden has committed to putting a public school teacher atop the Department of Education. … Given Biden’s close ties to organized labor, there is also a widespread expectation that he wants to put a union official or someone with union ties in his Cabinet,” according to Politico’s analysis.

Eskelsen García fits both criteria.

As the immediate past president of the National Education Association, she made a name for herself as a feisty leader with a focus on equity. And she was unafraid to openly question President Donald Trump and current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on funding, standardized testing and what she’s characterized as the dangerous call to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At one point this summer, Eskelsen García appeared on CNN and challenged Trump to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”

She recently concluded her second term leading the NEA in September, where she was the first Latina to head the union of 3 million members. She’d been president since 2014 and held several other positions in the organization since 2002. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but those close to her say she does not immediately have any new commitments lined up.

Before her national position, Eskelsen García led the Utah Education Association, a state branch of the NEA, from 1990 to 1996 — first winning election as a write-in candidate. And a year prior, in 1989, Eskelsen García was named Utah Teacher of the Year.

“We consider her one of our own,” said Michael McDonough, the current president of the association for Granite School District, where Eskelsen García began teaching and where she also remains a member of the union today.

‘Lily’s local'

Her trajectory to education has not been typical. After graduating from Box Elder High School, Eskelsen García started as a cafeteria worker in Colorado Springs.

“I was actually the salad girl,” she recounted to The Washington Post in 2014. “They wouldn’t let me near the hot food.”

She made up nicknames for the students and warmly greeted each one as they came through the lunch lines. She loved the interactions, she has said in telling her story on several platforms. And within a year, she found another job where she’d have more of an opportunity to continue with that: She was hired as an aide to a special education teacher.

While working in that position, the teacher noticed how Eskelsen García connected to the students and recommended she get a teaching degree. Eskelsen García gladly took the suggestion, she told The Post, after never having considered college before.

(Photo courtesy of Noel St. John) Lily Eskelsen García, a former Utah school teacher and congressional candidate who is now president of the National Education Association, speaks at the National Press Club on Friday, Sept. 9, 2017.

According to her NEA biography, she worked her way through the University of Utah on scholarships, student loans, and with the little cash she earned as a folk singer while her late first husband, Ruel, played the guitar. Together, they raised a son and took turns attending classes. She was the first in her family to graduate.

Eskelsen García was then hired in 1980 for her first teaching job at Orchard Elementary in West Valley City. She taught fifth and sixth graders there for about a decade.

During that time, she got involved with the Granite Education Association to fight for paid time off for a fellow teacher so he could be with his son who was being treated for leukemia. The UEA took note and invited Eskelsen García to speak at a rally at Liberty Park for education funding.

She brought her guitar, which made people skeptical when she walked on stage, and sang an original, “I’m-a-Teacher-and-I-Got-to-Work-in-Utah Blues.” McDonough recounted with a laugh how the doubt faded quickly, and Eskelsen García became an instant celebrity.

After the person running for UEA president in 1990 dropped out, she launched a write-in campaign for the spot and handily won. Her focus was on reducing the state’s historically large class sizes. She had nearly 40 kids in her class that year.

Eskelsen García later ran as a Democrat for U.S. House in 1998 and lost. She stuck with education after that, spending time teaching at the Salt Lake City homeless shelter and at the Christmas Box House.

Over the years, she has faced some pushback from more conservative education groups, particularly fighting over school vouchers. And she drew criticism for giving a speech in which she joked about students who were “chronically tarded” and “medically annoying.” She later said she meant to say “chronically tardy.” And she suggested that with the second phrase, she was trying to refer to students who aren’t actually sick but who disrupt class.

She continued to earn a national reputation, though, by penning often funny folk songs about pressing issues. One about the No Child Left Behind program, which tied school improvement to test scores, quipped: “If we have to test their butts off, there will be no child’s behind left.”

McDonough joked that’s his personal favorite. Eskelsen García, he added, has continued to bring personality and presence to education. And when teachers from Granite School District would attend the annual NEA meetings during her tenure as president, they’d sit at the front of the room and wear handmade “Lily’s local” T-shirts to celebrate her.

‘Fighting for justice’

If Eskelsen García is chosen for education secretary under Biden, she would be the second Utahn to serve in the position. Previously, Terrel Bell did during Ronald Regan’s presidency. Bell resigned in 1984, though, over disagreement with Reagan’s cuts to school funding.

Meanwhile, much of Eskelsen García’s work aligns with Biden’s goals for schools.

(AP Photo | Andrew Harnik)President-elect Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the Colonial Early Education Program at the Colwyck Training Center, Tuesday, July 21, 2020 in New Castle, Del.

While NEA president, she was vocal against standardized testing. She has said that excessive testing narrows curriculums and kills the joy of learning for students. “I’ll be damned if I will sit quietly and play nice and say diplomatic things about something that has corrupted the profession I love,” she told The Post in 2014.

The issue crosses over into equity for her. When a state uses test scores to determine whether a school is succeeding or failing, those in low-income areas or places that serve more students of color tend to fall to the bottom.

More than aptitude, what Eskelsen García believes the scores really show is a lack of resources. And more money, she said, is given to schools with more white students.

“Lily has always said that what ZIP code you’re born in shouldn’t determine what kind of education you get,” McDonough said. “She’s worked hard to try to fix that.”

Heidi Matthews, the current president of the Utah Education Association, said she’s also watched as Eskelsen García has pushed for a more equitable distribution of funds for schools. And Matthews has admired her work calling on districts to reexamine having police in school hallways; students of color are often targeted for discipline at higher rates than their white peers.

During the pandemic, Eskelsen García has rallied, too, to close the technology gap for students of color by urging school districts to provide Wi-Fi and laptops.

“She’s spent her whole life fighting for justice and racial justice in education,” Matthews said. “That makes her a perfect fit for education secretary — a job that’s focused on leveling the playing field for our most vulnerable kids.”

For his education plans, Biden has similarly promised to address inequities. He wants to triple spending for the Title I program that supports high-poverty schools. And he’s said that he intends to increase federal spending for special education.

During the debates, he also focused on how to make community colleges debt-free. And he plans to roll back several policies implemented by DeVos, the current and controversial education secretary, particularly related to Title IX (the federal law that protects against gender discrimination).

Those are all areas that Eskelsen García studied both in 2000, as a member of then-President Bill Clinton’s White House Strategy Session on Improving Hispanic Education, and again in 2011, while on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Though Eskelsen García is reported as a top pick for education secretary, the list also includes Randi Weingarten, who leads the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, is also a possibility. And there are several superintendents in the mix from California and Washington and New York, according to The Post.

But none of them, McDonough joked, rose from lunch lady to national union president like Eskelsen García.