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Federal Q&A

Exit Interview: Ed. Sec. John B. King Jr. Talks Legacy and Election Aftermath

By Alyson Klein — January 13, 2017 8 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. only served in his job for about a year. But in that time he’s helped lay the groundwork for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the first reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in more than a decade.

And he’s traveled to more than 30 states, used his bully pulpit to argue for equitable access to education, and butted heads with education groups and Republicans in Congress over a wonky—but important—spending provision in ESSA.

In a sit-down interview, King and I talked about everything from the Obama administration’s education legacy to the racially-charged incidents that have happened since the election. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.

When you were tapped to lead the department, your predecessor, Arne Duncan, said that the biggest difference between the two of you was that he hadn’t the same kinds of challenges growing up that you had. (King, who is African-American and Latino, was orphaned early on.) How has your background informed your work?

It’s hard for me to say. It’s probably something that’s easier for somebody else to observe. But I think that all the priorities we set for this year reflect the president’s vision, but certainly connect to my own experience. So our focus on issues of equity and early learning and K-12 in higher ed reflect the president’s commitment to equity, but also connect with my own experience in which having great teachers in New York City public schools saved my life. And so when I think about our work to make sure states and districts are doing everything they can to maximize opportunity for the kids who are most vulnerable, I know I’m only here today, I’m only alive today because educators did that for me, they gave me opportunity.

Secretary Duncan did a lot in a short amount of time. He has many fans, but he also generated a lot of controversy and strained relationships with people who tend to be close with Democrats—teachers’ unions, obviously, but even state chiefs and civil rights groups. When you came in, did that put you in an awkward position? Did you feel like you needed to repair those relationships?

Sometimes in Washington differences can get magnified. At the end of the day, Secretary Duncan had much more in common in terms of goals and aspirations for strengthening public education with leaders of civil rights organizations, with state chiefs, with labor leaders than maybe would be apparent from the headlines. That said, I think I had a lot of relationships from my time as a state chief and my time as deputy working on My Brother’s Keeper, [an initiative aimed at boosting achievement among African American males] in particular as an interagency effort, as well as working on ESSA. In many ways the things that we’ve worked on this year, I think, have reflected a strong consensus among state chiefs, labor leaders, civil rights community leaders that we need to move forward in a way that focuses on college and career-ready expectations for all students and flexibility for states and districts as they work to support all kids ...

ESSA has guardrails that are supposed to protect historically disadvantaged groups of students. Are those guardrails meaningful if the Education Department doesn’t enforce them?

The success of those guardrails will depend on the actions of districts, states, and the federal government, and one of the things I’m encouraged by is that states are committed to equity work. Every single chief is talking about the relationship between ESSA and equity and how they are going to use ESSA to close opportunity gaps and achievement gaps. And that’s encouraging.

(King said he is especially pleased that states are considering including chronic absenteeism and access to advanced coursework in school ratings.)

You spent nearly a year working on regulations for supplement-not-supplant (a wonky spending provision in ESSA) that the Trump administration is likely to ditch through the Congressional Review Act. Do you feel like that fight was a waste of time?

Resource equity is about more than just ESSA regulations. Resource equity is a fundamental building block of how we will continue to strengthen public education and build on the progress of the last eight years. ... For us the work on supplement-not-supplant was a reflection of the commitment in the law to get Title I dollars to the students most in need and the national responsibility to address issues of resource equity. Raising that issue was not just about this moment. It was about the broader responsibility.

In 2015, the department turned down Michigan’s application for a charter school grant, in part because peer reviewers thought the state’s charters lacked proper oversight protections. Can you talk about what kind of state oversight you think charter schools need, given that school choice is likely to be a big priority in the next administration?

(King didn’t comment on the specifics of the application. But he had some tough things to say about Michigan’s charter sector, which Betsy DeVos, the school choice advocate President-elect Donald Trump tapped to succeed King, helped to create.)

I’ve said on many occasions [including before DeVos was chosen as the next secretary] that I worry about the Michigan charter law. It is clear that Michigan has a proliferation of low-performing charters. It is clear that Michigan had a lower bar than they should for approving charters and has exercised insufficient charter oversight of academics and operations and has not shown the same willingness to act on underperformance that other states have. This isn’t new to the last few months ... If you contrast Michigan with Massachusetts or New York, what you see in Massachusetts and New York is a higher bar for the awarding of charters, more rigorous academic and operational oversight, and a real willingness to act on underperformance, including closing schools. And that rigorous charter authorizing is a significant factor in the outstanding performance of charters in Boston and the large number of very high-performing charters in New York City.

You’ve been a teacher, principal, state chief. You sent your kids to public schools. How has that informed your job, and do you think someone could do your job without having any personal experience with public education?

I think it’s very clear that public education is at the foundation of the country’s success and our democracy. ... The department has a responsibility to work to continuously strengthen public education. For me, my passion about those beliefs is grounded in my own experiences as a teacher, as a state chief, as a student, as a parent. But one could reach similar conclusions coming from a different set of experiences.

I wouldn’t say that there is a particular set of experiences necessary to reach those beliefs, but I would say that those beliefs shouldn’t be dependent on the president or the party. That is the role of the Education Department, to support a strong system of public education for the country.

Racial tensions obviously, were a big issue in the presidential election. President-elect Trump questioned whether a Mexican judge could be impartial because of his heritage. He talked about not allowing Muslims into the country. You’re the father of two daughters of color. Are you worried about what the Trump presidency is going to mean for them?

I’m worried about the tenor of political discourse over the last few months and worried about the incidents that we’re seeing in schools of bullying and harassment. ... I think that flurry of events in schools has a variety of sources, but at the end of the day one of the key responsibilities of this department is to make sure that school is a safe and supportive environment for all students. ... We’ve been very focused on trying to make sure that students are able to go to school free from bullying, free from harassment, whether it’s on the basis of race or religion or LGBT status, or immigration status. ... That responsibility continues no matter who occupies this office. That is not a matter of who’s president, what party is in charge. That is a fundamental responsibility of this agency as a civil rights agency.

I don’t think this is a partisan issue, if you think back to how Secretary [Rod] Paige responded after 9/11 and President Bush and Secretary Paige sent a very clear message to schools that students needed to be protected from religious bigotry and there was a moral responsibility on the part of schools and a legal responsibility to protect their students.

Secretary Duncan had this great opportunity with the economic stimulus, and he used unprecedented money to push for change on standards and teacher quality. In hindsight, were those the right priorities? Should the department have instead pushed on desegregation or early childhood?

I wasn’t here, so it’s hard to evaluate the choices that were made then. But I will say what are things that I wish we had been able to do more of ... early childhood education is at the top of the list. (King noted that the president proposed a big expansion of preschool that Congress didn’t go along with, but that there has been a lot of activity in states on the issue.)

We couldn’t persuade Congress [to pass a $120 million school desegregation plan.] We did launch our own $12 million plan. We did find ways to include diversity into other grant programs. But I think the fact that we’re more than 60 years past [Brown vs. the Board of Education] and we have communities that are more segregated by race or class than 10 years ago is inconsistent with our values as a country.

Oh, and King doesn’t know yet what is next professional move will be. He promised to keep us posted.

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. chats with Education Week in his office. Photo credit: Dorie Nolt, press secretary.