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Catching Up: John B. King Jr. on Trump, ESSA, and Heading Back to the Classroom

By Alyson Klein — September 13, 2017 6 min read
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Last year at this time then-U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. was on a back-to-school bus tour through a swath of the South, touring school districts hit by a hurricane, and dropping by a charter high school in New Orleans to talk to students about a recent turnaround effort.

Now he’s the president and CEO of the Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority children. And he’s got a new side gig, teaching an education policy class at the University of Maryland.

I caught up with King at his offices in Washington and talked to him about some of the changes in Washington over the past year and where he sees things heading.

On the Trump administration’s civil rights record:

King has some big concerns about some of the administration’s recent moves when it comes to civil rights enforcement, which he sees as central to the department’s mission. He specifically cited the administration’s choice to rescind guidance allowing transgender kids to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. He also noted DeVos’ comments that historically black colleges were pioneers of school choice. (DeVos later clarified those remarks). And he brought up changes her department has proposed to the agency’s system for vetting civil rights complaints.

“All of those things suggest that there’s not a full commitment to civil rights protection,” King said. “And to me the question would be, what is she going to do ensure that students’ civil rights are protected.”

He’s worried too, that the Trump administration proposed to cut the budget for the Education Departments office for civil rights.

“Part of what makes the local advocate-federal partnership is if you see a civil rights violation and you take it to the feds in the hopes that it will be addressed,” he said. “I am worried that infrastructure is not being supported as it should be.”

On state ESSA plans:

King sees “real strengths” in some of the state Every Student Succeeds Act plans turned in this spring and drafts of plans due next week.

But, he says, there are some big question marks and missed opportunities, too. He’s glad to see that so many states will be incorporating chronic absenteeism and college-and-career readiness into their accountability systems, something he encouraged as secretary. (At least 10 states so far have included chronic absenteeism or attendance into their ESSA systems, more here.) And he’s encouraged that some states are continuing to put a focus on academics and aren’t walking away from working to close the achievement gap, as some feared they might.

“I am worried about the clarity for parents about school performance ... I’m very worried about the California dashboard,” he said, referring to the state’s proposed accountability model, which considers school performance on a host of factors, but doesn’t come up with an overall rating. “I think it’s very confusing.”

And he sees a lack of detail in plans when it comes to how to intervene in low-performing schools, a perennially tricky task. “I worry that the interventions will be paperwork, rather than substantive,” he said. He’s also worried there won’t be “meaningful ratcheting up of interventions"—meaning that schools that aren’t getting better would have to try something new, or go deeper.

King had also hoped some states would incorporate a push for socioeconomic diversity and racial diversity into their plans, including as a turnaround strategy for low-performing schools. And that hasn’t happened.

States also didn’t go as far as they could have in rethinking how they might use federal funding for teacher quality—in part because the Trump administration said it wanted to eliminate the program, King said.

Ed Trust and other civil rights organizations have run “ESSA bootcamps” to educate state-level advocates—including parents and teachers—on how they can keep a close eye on the law’s implementation.

On the Trump administration’s approach ESSA:

King thinks his successor, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, needs to push states to improve student outcomes under the new law, not just get their plans approved.

“There is a role in particular that I think the secretary can play in making clear to states that the [goal] of ESSA is not plan approval. It’s actually improvements in outcomes and closing the achievement gaps,” he said. “States may need to revise their plans ... but they should be doing that in service of this broader goal of equity. And it feels like, a little bit, the message from the department over the last few months has been that ESSA is about plan approval.”


King and four other former secretaries of education signed a letter urging congressional leaders to keep protections for the so-called “Dreamers,” young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors, who have been shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“I think there is a strong bipartisan majority in support of the DREAM Act,” he said. “If government works like it should, it should happen. On the other hand, we’ve been waiting a long time” for that legislation.

On low-income students taking Advanced Placement classes:

King had some concerns after reading this story in the New York Times about the struggles low-income students have succeeding in AP.

“What worried me is, if people read that story and walk away and think to themselves, ‘Oh the problem is too many low-income students of color are in AP classes.’ That would be a horribly wrong, and it would be harmful to education equity. What one should take away from that story is that [there is a difference[ between access and success, and that should cause us to ask, well, what does it take to ensure that students have access and then are successful?”

He noted that Education Trust did a report on schools that had good outcomes for low-income students on AP. The takeaway?

“It requires strong academic support, not just starting in that AP class, but in the prior years so that students have the academic skills to be successful. It requires attention to tutoring opportunities and extra support opportunities when students struggle. It requires building a culture that says to students, ‘You belong here, we want you to succeed, we believe you will succeed, and we will invest in you to succeed through your hard work. You work hard, we will provide you with support.’”

On heading back to the classroom: King, a former social studies teacher, is jazzed to be teaching again.

“We’re going to talk through the current education policy debates,” he said, including the transition from No Child Left Behind to ESSA. He’s trying to give his students, who are pursuing degrees in education and public policy, a sense of both the “substantive policy context, but also a window into how policymakers think about their work and the need to think through your goals but also to think through the political environment,” as you pursue those goals.

Bonus: If you happen to be taking King’s class at Maryland, your final assignment will be to read the Baltimore Sun’s “Bridging the Divide” series by Liz Bowie and Erica L. Green. Then come up with a proposal to address the issues of segregation it describes, and write a speech pitching the plan to the public.

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Photo: Swikar Patel for Education Week.

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