Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., is taking the helm of The Education Trust, an organization in Washington that has spent decades advocating for poor and minority children.
King will be only the second leader in Ed Trust’s history, taking over for Kati Haycock, the organization’s chief executive officer who founded Ed Trust in the 1990’s.
“Over its 25-year history, The Education Trust has been a leader in the work to bring attention and action to closing long-standing opportunity and achievement gaps that separate too many low-income students and students of color from their peers, pre-kindergarten through college,” said David V. Britt, the chairman of Ed Trust’s board of directors. “This history provides a strong foundation on which to build new partnerships, new work, and new learning—indeed a new movement—and we think John is exactly the right leader for this next stage of the organization’s work.”
The move seems like a natural fit for King, who made advocating for equitable access to education for all students, including historically overlooked kids, a central mission in his single year as the head of the department.
King, who served as President Barack Obama’s second education secretary, has outlined an ambitious agenda for the organization, starting with working with states and districts to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. He noted in an interview that Ed Trust has recently participated in a training institute, helping advocates on the ground in 22 states learn about the law and how its new flexibilities can be used to help at-risk children.
King is hoping to build on that work. He wants to Ed Trust to help “galvanize a movement” among educators, parents, civil rights leaders, the business community, faith-based organizations, to insist that states use their flexibility under ESSA to advance equity. That would include both gaps in achievement and “gaps in opportunity” such as unequal access to advanced coursework and arts education.
And he expects the organization—which has offices in California, Michigan, and New York, as well as Washington—will continue to bring a “real vigilance” when it comes to making sure civil rights laws are enforced at both the federal and state levels.
“Ed Trust will continue to be a loud voice for protecting student civil rights, and we’ll continue to use data, research, evidence to call attention to places where students’ civil rights are not being protected,” King said.
For instance, he recalled a case where the Education Department’s office for civil rights worked with a district that had sent around notices to parents about STEM-focused programs written only in English. Kids from Spanish-speaking homes were “significantly under-represented” in the program. OCR worked with the district to correct the problem.
“Whether it’s at the federal level or the state level we’re going to be a voice pointing out those kinds of disparities, insisting that policymakers take responsibility for changing them,” King said.
And while he’ll continue the organization’s focus on college access, he’d also like to emphasize college completion. He praised universities that use data to help figure out which students are in danger of falling behind.
In his work as education secretary, King, the former state of commissioner of education in New York, often talked about his own background to make a case for the impact K-12 policies cooked up in Washington, states, and school districts can have on vulnerable children.
The son of two educators, King, who is African American and Puerto Rican, was orphaned at 12, following his fathers’ struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. King credits New York City Public School teachers with saving his life. After graduating from Harvard University and earning a master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, King taught at charter schools before helping to start Roxbury Prep, a charter, and later, helping to found Uncommon, a network of charter schools.
Later, during his tenure as state education commissioner in New York, he clashed with teachers’ unions on implementation of the Common Core State Standards, but won plaudits for his work in pushing open educational resources and encouraging the use of school integration as a strategy to improve low-performing schools.
“Everything I’ve done in education has really strung from a commitment to students who are most vulnerable,” King said.
Ed Trust has a history of working with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, most notably with the No Child Left Behind Act and, most recently, with ESSA. As secretary, King clashed with key Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education committee chairman, over ESSA regulations on accountability and spending. Alexander felt that King’s proposals overstepped the boundaries of the law.
But King doesn’t expect those past differences to be a roadblock in his new role.
He said he always had “a positive relationship” with Alexander and that their conversations were “constructive and thoughtful.” He sees a push by Alexander and others to allow students to use Pell Grants during the summer, and an effort to make over career and technical education programs as two areas on which Ed Trust could partner with Republicans.
Before leaving office, King didn’t say much about his views on Betsy DeVos, his would-be successor at the Education Department. She is the first education secretary whose confirmation The Education Trust has opposed.
In his interview Wednesday, King said he has “deep concerns” about DeVos’ understanding of “key areas of the department’s responsibility,” including when it comes to special education, as well as her “commitment to the work of the office for civil rights and continuing the progress we’ve made.”
He added, “Speaking as a former secretary, I hope that she will lead in a way that is consistent with the department’s mission of protecting students’ civil rights and advancing equity. ... I hope that if she’s confirmed she’ll prove those concerns wrong.”
King’s new role won plaudits from both state and non-profit leaders.
“I have worked with John King for more than a decade, at the school level, the state level, and the national level,” said John White, Louisiana’s state chief in a statement. “There is not a more informed or compelling advocate for our kids and for our nation’s potential.”
And Evan Stone, a co-chief executive officer of Educators 4 Excellence, called King “an educator’s educator, who deeply understands the challenges teachers face every day and is committed to finding ever better ways to address those—all in the service of kids.”
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