Every Student Succeeds Act

Ed. Secretary Nominee Gets Collegial Senate Confirmation Hearing

By Alyson Klein — March 08, 2016 4 min read
Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. testifies before the Senate education committee on Capitol Hill as it considers whether to confirm him as head of the Education Department.
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If the confirmation hearing for John B. King Jr., the nominee for U.S. secretary of education, was any indication, he should have little trouble getting the final nod from the Senate education committee.

A collegial panel of senators quizzed King, currently the acting secretary, on a variety of policy matters and on the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but gave scant indication that he would be caught in the partisan infighting that had stalled confirmation for other Obama administration appointees, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

In his Feb. 25 appearance before the education committee, King told lawmakers that, as a former classroom teacher, charter school operator, and state education chief, he recognizes that “the best ideas come from classrooms, not from conference rooms.” In this new ESSA era, he said, “the locus of decisionmaking around the most appropriate supports, interventions, and rewards in our schools is rightly shifting back to states and districts—and away from the one-size-fits-all mandates of No Child Left Behind,” which preceded ESSA.

At the same time, King sees a key and continuing role for the federal government in ensuring that ESSA—the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—builds on the civil rights legacy of the original 1965 law.

New Tone

By the time King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, left office in December, he had a pretty strained relationship with Republicans—and some Democrats—on Capitol Hill.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the panel, kicked off King’s confirmation hearing on a friendly note.

He recalled that when he was nominated as President George H.W. Bush’s education secretary 25 years ago, one senator told him that he had “heard some disturbing things” about the former Tennessee governor. Alexander had to wait for months for his confirmation.

“I don’t suspect you’re going to have any sort of problem [like] that today,” Alexander said. And he ticked off King’s long résumé, saying, “You have seen our education system from nearly every angle.”

Alexander told King he sees King as a potential policy partner on ESSA implementation, but also on college access and affordability as well as on ESSA.

But later, Alexander reminded King that ESSA aims to rein in the Education Department, in part because many in Congress felt that Duncan took executive authority too far, particularly in pushing for teacher evaluations tied to student test scores and for states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

King agreed that the new law is clear on this point, and that while he believes both policies have a lot to recommend them, the department can’t use federal money or new regulatory flexibility to push them.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee and a key ESSA architect, said King has spent his career “fighting on behalf of students so that they can get the chance to learn, grow, and thrive in the classroom and beyond. ... No one can question his passion for our nation’s young people.”

As he has in recent speeches, King, who is African-American and Puerto Rican, talked about his own background, growing up as the son of two educators in New York City. He was orphaned early in life, and credits his teachers with helping him feel secure and valued.

ESSA and the Feds

Alexander’s first question was on the timeline for implementation of ESSA. The senator wanted to know exactly when the Education Department expects ESSA regulations to be completed, and when states’ plans for accountability and federal spending will be due.

King told him the department is reaching out to the education community and has already begun to think through the early stages of the regulatory process. But he didn’t outline a step-by-step plan spelling out what will happen and when.

Murray’s first K-12 question was on the teacher shortage in some states, including her home state of Washington: Why is it happening, and what does King think the department can do about it?

King told her that “conversations about the teaching profession have gotten hard,” but that ESSA offers a chance for a reset. ESSA doesn’t require states to adopt teacher evaluations tied to test results, as they had to under the administration’s NCLB waivers.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who helped lead the fight to include provisions for educational equity during ESSA’s development, asked King how the department plans to make sure that states implement accountability systems that protect vulnerable subgroups of students.

“I think there’s an opportunity here for states to have smarter interventions,” King said. But, he added, if those interventions aren’t closing achievement gaps, the department may need to step in and ask states to try another solution.

And Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a former champion of the NCLB law, asked King how he planned to handle testing opt-outs to “ensure strong testing-participation rates” without “forcing [the tests] down parents’ throats.”

King said that, as New York state commissioner of education, he took a hard look at the amount of testing required and asked districts to do the same. Both ESSA and the Obama administration’s proposed budget include provisions aimed at making it easier for states and districts around the country to “audit” their testing systems and eliminate tests that are duplicative or of low-quality.

He said he’s “optimistic” that will help reduce tests and make students feel better about having to take them.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Ed. Secretary Nominee Enjoys Collegial Hearing


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