In summary

The California Community College chancellor has led ambitious reforms and helped significantly improve transfer rates to the four-year universities.

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By Max Lubin, Special to CalMatters

Max Lubin is the CEO of Rise, a student advocacy organization, He is a former Obama administration appointee to the U.S. Department of Education from 2013-2016.

President-elect Joe Biden won the election with the most ambitious education agenda in the modern era. From tripling Title 1 funding for low-income schools to eliminating tuition for most families, his plans will need an Education Secretary with the savvy to match the boldness of the agenda. 

He can find that and more in California’s Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the best pick to be the next Secretary of Education. 

During the campaign, Biden drew a contrast with the current administration by emphasizing the importance of an Education secretary who has classroom experience. Oakley meets the mark, starting his career as an adjunct faculty member at Golden West College. Adjunct roles have been hit especially hard by the pandmeic recession, and that perspective gives Oakley insight not only into students’ experiences but the toll on educators as well. 

Beyond teaching, Oakley’s life experiences make him, in short, the anti-DeVos. He is the son of Mexican-American immigrants and a U.S. Army veteran who enrolled in community college before degrees from the University of California, Irvine. After working his way up from adjunct and administrative roles, Oakley became the leader of Long Beach’s Community College District where he launched the Long Beach College Promise.

The Long Beach College Promise is a national model for free tuition that President Barack Obama made the foundation for his 2015 free community college proposal. The Promise included more than free tuition; a close collaboration between the community college district and Long Beach Unified School District took a more holistic view of students’ trajectory that raised high school graduation rates above statewide averages. Ten years into the initiative, college enrollment among first generation students at Long Beach State had increased by 151%. 

Oakley’s current role is likely the most political job in education, second only to running the U.S. Department of Education. He is responsible for more than 2.1 million students (about 1 in 5 of the nation’s community college students), more people than the total population of 14 states plus Washington, D.C. As chancellor, he corrals 116 autonomous colleges to advance an agenda called the “Vision for Success.” These are goals focus on degree completion, erasing equity gaps and strengthening California’s workforce: the same challenges facing our nation as a whole. 

So how has Oakley performed in his current role? He has led ambitious reforms of remedial courses that derail first-generation students. He has commissioned groundbreaking research to understand and address student hunger and homelessness. He has expanded California’s free tuition programs, and helped community colleges significantly improve transfer rates to the four-year universities. 

In my current role leading Rise, a student advocacy nonprofit working to make college free, we have found a champion and a consensus builder in Oakley: someone adept at working with students, organized labor and the business community. Partnering with Rise and other advocates, he has won budget battles in the state Legislature, even when counterparts at the more elite public universities had their budgets whacked. 

Recently, Oakley won a $100 million philanthropic gift, the largest ever for a community college system. This kind of leadership in Washington will make the most of the Education Department’s authority to shape higher education which exceeds its ability to shape our decentralized K-12 education system. 

Prior to co-founding Rise, I worked as a junior political appointee in the Obama Education Department. I saw firsthand how political gridlock and asinine conspiracies about topics like the Common Core (that it is a curriculum – it is not; that it was written by President Obama – it was not) can hamper progress. But I also saw how secretaries with decency, integrity and political savvy can accomplish big things for students and families. 

The next Secretary of Education will have to repair a damaged department, navigate a difficult Congress and deliver on Biden’s promises for students like free college and canceling student loan debt. Having seen Oakley take on equally ambitious challenges in California, I know he would make a worthy nominee to do the same for Biden’s Education Department. 

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