Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer set the stage for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren during her presidential campaign visit to Douglas High School in Memphis. She is the favorite of many to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/TSD Archives)

by Curtis Weathers —

Curtis Weathers

President-elect Joe Biden is moving swiftly to fill cabinet positions in his administration. My interest, of course, is who he will select as the new Secretary of Education.

Biden and his advisers have been getting both solicited and unsolicited advice from numerous people and organizations (including yours truly) about who might be the best person to run the Education Department. Close to a dozen candidates are being discussed in the media as being under some level of consideration. Unless I missed it, I haven’t heard of anyone who is considered a frontrunner at this point.  

I’ve been thinking about this position for several months now and have whittled my shortlist down to two very capable individuals whom I think would do an excellent job: Baltimore City Public Schools CEO, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises and the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren.  

I know, what an odd couple!

Let’s start with Sen. Warren, who is my second choice. Warren started her career teaching special needs students in public schools. She later served as a law professor at two public universities, the University of Houston and the University of Texas-Austin, before later moving on to Ivy League law schools.

Warren has been very active on educational issues during her years in the U.S. Senate, and education was a central theme in her campaign for president. As a member of the education committee, she was involved in the development of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – the law governing K-12 education, which is scheduled for reauthorization next year.

During her presidential campaign, Warren introduced a plan to improve funding for K-12 education. She also introduced an expansive proposal to cancel student debt and yet another to make public colleges tuition-free. 

Warren is both a skilled politician and a former educator at both the K-12 and university level. I support many of her policy positions on public education and I think her leadership skills are greatly needed as we navigate our school systems back to normality after this pandemic has subsided. 

My only concern is that she currently wields a great deal of influence legislatively and her leadership in the Senate would truly be missed.  

My first choice for Secretary of Education, however, is Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, the current CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. I’m a distant fan of her work and I was happy to see that she was among those under consideration for Education Secretary. 

Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools since 2016, says every single neighborhood in Baltimore City now has gifted and advanced learning programs at the elementary level and that every single high school will offer Advanced Placement courses. (Courtesy Photo)

 Dr. Santelises began her career in education as a school teacher and curriculum specialist at Decatur Clearpool, a year-round school in Brooklyn, New York.  She then served as director of professional development and teacher placement with Teach for America (New York).

Before leaving New York and joining Boston Public Schools, Santelises lectured on urban education for two years at Harvard University and spent six years as a senior associate with Focus on Results Inc., where she coached superintendents and trained school leaders in five major urban districts. 

She also served as vice president of The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization focused on closing the achievement gap of students from low-income families. 

While her resume is very impressive, her work in the Baltimore City Public Schools has not gone unappreciated. Her school board recently granted her a 4-year contract extension through the 2024 school year.  

The community and school board are very pleased with her leadership and, quite frankly, are not happy with all of the attention she is now receiving from the Biden administration and others who may be trying to steal her away. 

A national education group, Democrats for Education Reform, is aggressively lobbying the Biden administration to select the highly regarded Superintendent as the new Secretary of Education. The organization points to her experience and success in running a large urban school system, which is one of the most challenging jobs on the planet. They also appreciate her stance on testing and charter schools. 

Still, Santelises has her detractors. Her critics, many of whom are pro union, point to her decision to return to limited in-person learning during the pandemic, risking the health and safety of teachers (and students). They also chafe at the fact that she has one child who attends a private school and two others attending charter schools.   

As an African American female, she’s brings to the job a resume and body of work that speaks to her passion for public education and an acute understanding of K-12 policy and practice. She is also is a mother, a mentor and a highly regarded leader of one of the largest urban school systems in the nation.  

I have never met Santelises, but based on everything I’ve seen, read and heard, I believe she would be an excellent choice to lead the Education Department at this crucial time in our nation’s history.  

What more could you ask for? 


(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected])