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Every Student Succeeds Act

Acting Ed. Secretary John B. King Jr.'s Confirmation: Four Things to Watch For

By Alyson Klein — February 24, 2016 5 min read
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Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., should start researching the lunch options in House and Senate cafeterias—he’s going to be on Capitol Hill quite a bit this week. He’ll kick things off with a House education committee hearing on the budget Wednesday, plus another on the president’s latest budget request for fiscal year 2017 on Thursday morning.

But the highlight may come Thursday afternoon, with his confirmation hearing. King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, sailed through his confirmation hearing in early 2009, with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now the committee chairman, calling him Obama’s best cabinet pick.

Alexander promised President Barack Obama that if he nominated King, the former New York state schools chief would get a fair hearing. But that doesn’t mean his confirmation hearing will be quite the love feast that Duncan’s was, in part because relations between Capitol Hill Republicans (and some Democrats) and the Education Department have become strained over the past seven years.

King, who arrived at the department early last year, wasn’t around to help make many of the decisions that GOP lawmakers have criticized as federal overreach (like pushing teacher evaluation through test scores, and Common Core State Standards adoption through waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act). But he could still take questions on those issues Thursday.

Here are four things that will almost surely come up in the confirmation hearing and, possibly, King’s other appearances this week:

Implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act: Alexander has said it’s particularly important to have an honest-to-goodness, confirmed secretary since the next person to head up the Education Department will get the ball rolling on implementation of ESSA, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Alexander (and many other Republicans) thought Duncan overstepped his bounds in offering states waivers from the NCLB law. So there are huge sections of ESSA seeking to rein in federal power when it comes to testing, standards, teacher evaluations, and more. King, who has made it clear in recent speeches that he sees the law as including a clear role for the federal government in ensuring equity for all students, will almost certainly be asked about how he sees those prohibitions playing out.

King’s personal and professional background: King, who is African-American and Puerto Rican, has used his personal story—growing up in New York City as the orphaned son of educators—to prod states to keep the needs of disadvantaged front and center in policymaking. King may also play up his background as a teacher and principal. If confirmed, he’d be the first former principal to serve in the job, and only the third former K-12 teacher. (Secretaries Rod Paige and Terrel Bell were classroom teachers. So was another acting secretary, Ted Sanders.) What’s more, King is a former state chief—so he can talk about the federal-state relationship from both perspectives.

Common Core: The standards are highly likely to come up at some point in the hearing. As New York state chief, King was a common core fan, but for the most part, he won’t be able to use his power as secretary to bolster common core—thanks to ESSA, he can’t tie adoption of the standards to flexibility or new money. (He can use the bully pulpit to tout the benefits of the standards, though.) But congressional Republicans aren’t happy with the Education Department’s recent messaging on ESSA standards. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., head of the House education committee, said at a recent hearing that the department has been making it sound like the new law continues to embrace common core. (In fact, ESSA calls for states to set standards that will prepare students to take credit-bearing coursework in college, but prohibits the department—or the post-secondary schools—from directing states to set specific standards. The department has said the law calls for “college- and career-ready” standards.)

Teacher’s Take: During his tenure as New York state chief, teachers’ unions and other advocates criticized King for, in their view, pushing too far, too fast on tying evaluations to new tests aligned to the common core. (More here.) And when King was selected to replace Duncan, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed serious concerns about the choice. (She feels a lot better about King now that she’s seen him in action. More here). But not everyone is going to be assuaged—the Badass Teachers’ Association has been circulating a petition calling on lawmakers not to confirm King.

BONUS: King could be asked about Danny Harris, the department’s chief information officer, whose had some tax and conflict-of-interest issues detailed in a report by the department’s Inspector General—but that seems less likely now that Harris has announced his retirement.

Earlier this month, King testified when the House Government Reform and Oversight committee held a hearing on how the department has dealt with Harris’ behavior. King explained that—back in 2013—the Justice Department and the Inspector General concluded Harris didn’t violate law or policy. Plus, King, who has only been acting secretary for a couple months, counseled Harris about his behavior. But Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, still expressed concerns about King’s management, saying the new secretary was “failing.” Harris collapsed at the hearing and had to be taken to the hospital.

Last week, though, Harris announced his retirement, effective Feb. 29. (Hat tip: Politico). Harris, who has been a career employee at the department for more than 30 years, could have retired already, but decided to stick around to help the department improve cybersecurity, said Dorie Nolt, an education department spokeswoman in a statement. It’s unclear if Senate Republicans shared their House colleagues’ concerns about Harris—but his actions may not matter as much now that he’s on his way out the door.

Want even more? Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (and Edweek’s Rick Hess Straight Up) has some suggested questions for lawmakers.

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