We Have A New Education Secretary. Here’s Why It Matters.

Then New York State Education Commissioner John King Jr. testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing on education on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. King said he would advocate for a $1.3 billion increase in education aid to help schools. CREDIT: MIKE GROLL, AP
Then New York State Education Commissioner John King Jr. testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing on education on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. King said he would advocate for a $1.3 billion increase in education aid to help schools. CREDIT: MIKE GROLL, AP

It was a surprise to those working in education policy when Arne Duncan, who has served as the education secretary since the beginning of the Obama administration, announced he would step down by the end of last year. Now, with only one year to go until a new administration takes over, John King — who previously served as acting deputy secretary — is stepping in as acting education secretary.

King only served in the role of acting deputy secretary for one year, which doesn’t leave a very long track record from which to understand his point of view on federal education policy. However, some of his recent remarks, as well as his time as New York education commissioner, which lasted a few years, and his experience co-founding the Roxbury Prep Charter School and working as the managing director of the Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit charter management operation, are fairly informative of his point of view on the issues that will shape students’ and teachers’ experiences moving forward.

Here’s where King stands on the most important education issues in the country, and what he may move forward on during his time in his new role:

Making sure all students receive a quality education

In King’s letter on goals for 2016 that the department released last week, he wrote, “Our work in 2016 must be measured by the progress we make toward educational opportunity for all … My first priority is to build on this Administration’s strong focus on equity and excellence at every level of our education system, in every school.”


King then noted the “persistent achievement gaps” that remain for students of color, students with disabilities, low-income students, and English Language Learners. When Democrats pushed for what they called the “accountability amendment” in the bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind, or the Every Student Achieves Act, they advocated for federal guardrails to ensure there would be repercussions for states with wide achievement gaps between student groups. But the accountability amendment did not pass.

Now, states will continue to track these student subgroups, but will be responsible for building their own accountability systems. That worries some education advocates, who say that states have historically proven they can’t be relied upon to check inequities in their own education systems and that federal oversight is necessary to ensure all students receive a quality education.

If you read between the lines, John King’s letter indicates he will closely watch states. He writes, “As we support states in implementing this new law, we will work to create guardrails to enforce its critical civil rights protections for all students in K-12” and “We will continue to uphold our civil rights laws across the board, to protect the students who have too often gotten the least.”

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights, emphasized the importance of monitoring achievement gaps post-ESSA.

“We’re not dialing back on anything, department wide. The equity focus of the first seven years will continue full speed ahead. John is committed to all students and if anything, we will be adding to it so we can do even more than last year.”


On King’s reference to supporting states in implementing the law, Lhamon said, “We want to actively engage our state partners so that the purpose of the original [Elementary And Secondary Education Act) will be delivered to reality to all students and schools and that we see appropriate accountability measures adopted to states that would deliver the civil rights promises of the original act in the ESSA.”

Desegregating schools

Experts on school desegregation, such as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, who met with King last year, say that King may also be more aggressive on pursuing the the desegregation of public schools. His recent statements and actions as New York education commissioner speak for themselves, however.

King pushed for a $25 million grant program, which began in earnest last October, to use more school improvement money from the federal government. The hope is that these improvements will convince wealthy families to enroll in high-poverty schools, spurring economic and racial integration in New York’s highly segregated schools. A 2014 University of California, Los Angeles report found that 10 percent or less of students in 19 of the city’s 32 community school districts were white.

King also spoke about the importance of school desegregation at a conference for the National Coalition on School Diversity held at Howard University last September. He said he hoped the No Child Left Behind rewrite would address issues of desegregation. “I remain hopeful that there are opportunities in the reauthorization to specifically incentivize socioeconomic integration, to take steps that will improve the racial integration of our schools,” he said.

Unfortunately, the bill does not address desegregation through the incentives King mentioned. When King spoke at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany in the spring of 2014, he acknowledged the resegregation of schools, and New York’s intensely segregated school system in particular, according to Capitol New York.


“Believe it or not, 60 years after [Brown v. Board of Ed], we remain deeply segregated,” King said. “Not only do our 700 school district lines often track patterns of residential economic segregation, there are school districts in this state today — including New York City — with boundary lines within the district that keep children of wealth starkly separated from children of poverty. And we know from our history that segregation, whether it’s economic or racial, breeds inequality.”

Supporting Common Core standards

No one can doubt King’s fierce commitment to the Common Core state standards, which is something he’s been heavily criticized for in New York.

Critics say King’s rollout of the standards happened too quickly, without giving teachers proper guidance from the state or enough time to adjust to the new requirements. The relationship between King and New York State United Teachers became so heated that the union’s board unanimously voted to withdraw support for Common Core, declared no confidence in King, and asked the state Board of Regents to remove him from office. During a hearing held by the New York legislature’s Senate Education Committee in January of 2014, the committee said they may be forced to take legislative action and override the New York Board of Regents to slow down Common Core implementation if King didn’t do himself.

But King has remained unwavering his support for Common Core — and has advocated against what he calls the politicization of the state standards, which have been criticized by politicians on the left and the right for very different reasons. Those on the left have tended to object to the implementation of Common Core and tying teacher evaluations to scores of Common Core-aligned tests, while those on the right tend to think the standards represent a government takeover of education, despite the fact that the standards were voluntarily adopted by states.

“We have an opportunity to move away from the political debates that have distracted us for the last year,” King said at a breakfast forum between 50 business people and educators at the Warwick Hotel in 2014. “When your elected officials acquiesce to people saying higher standards are a national conspiracy of the left or a national conspiracy of the right, we need you to push back.”

Surveys show that there are many misconceptions about how Common Core actually works in practice. Seventy-seven percent of of people who say they’ve “heard a lot about” the standards incorrectly believe that sex education, history, and information about global warming are included.

After King’s departure, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who fought to increase the percentage tests counted toward teacher evaluations to 50 percent, arranged a task force to review the standards. The task force recommended to overhaul teacher evaluations and standardized testing but wrote that the new system would “maintain the key instructional shifts set forth in the Common Core” and suggested a transition until the 2019–2020 school year, when the state can implement a new system.

In his letter, King mentions the need for higher standards but appears to acknowledge that the proper support needs to be provided to teachers and students in order to implement it effectively, writing, “We have raised standards, but we know many of our students need more support to meet them.”

In his comments after Duncan announced his stepping down as secretary, King emphasized the importance of supporting and investing in teachers. King said that one of the goals he aims to carry over from the Duncan years is to “invest in our teachers and provide the best preparation and support and leadership opportunities for them.”

Addressing predatory for-profit colleges and rising student debt

King addressed student debt and college attainment in his letter as well, writing, “I want to extend our focus in higher education beyond enrollment to completion, ensuring that more students complete an affordable, high-quality degree.”

This is important because low-income students and students of color are less likely to graduate college — and for-profit college students, which tend to target these disadvantaged populations, have poor graduation rates. Many for-profit colleges also offer a lower quality education because they skimp on classroom resources and support staff to increase profit, a reputation that for-profit college graduates say employers are well aware of. Because these students are financially worse off due to low career prospects, they are less able to shoulder student debt, even if it’s a relatively small amount of money compared to student debt incurred from attending graduate school or a traditional four-year college.

By focusing on quality of education and poor graduation rates, King doesn’t necessarily have to focus only on for-profit colleges. But many for-profit colleges do have these characteristics, as shown by a 2012 Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee report on the industry.

The president and CEO of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, Steve Gunderson, asked the Department of Education for a fresh start in its approach toward for-profit colleges in a letter to King last week. Gunderson accused the department of “pressuring accreditors to pursue an ideological agenda of selective investigation and enforcement actions against schools in our sector that are not similarly directed towards other sectors” and asks the department not to accuse a “group of schools” when speaking about problems the department has with specific schools.

On King’s first school visit in JoAnn Leleck Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, he responded to the letter, saying, “To the extent there are institutions that are not fulfilling those responsibilities, we are going to push them to pay attention to those things … That’s true for the entirety of the higher education sector,” according to PoliticoPro.