Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., got a partisan-fireworks-free confirmation hearing from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Thursday, including a series of collegial questions focused on how he will implement the brand-new Every Student Succeeds Act.
For his part, 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, though, King sees a key and continued 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 1965 law.
By the time King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, left office, 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. (That bodes well for a swift agreement on King’s nomination.)
And he ticked off King’s long resume, saying, “You have seen our education system from nearly every angle.”
Alexander told King he’d urged President Barack Obama to made it clear he sees King as a potential policy partner, not just on ESSA implementation, but also on college access and affordability.
Later, though, Alexander reminded King that ESSA seeks to rein in the Education Department, in part because many in Congress felt that Duncan had taken executive authority too far, particularly in pushing for teacher evaluations through test scores and state adoption of the Common Core State Standards. King agreed that the law is clear on this point: that while he believes both policies have a lot to recommend them, the feds can’t use federal money or new flexibility to push them.
Alexander seemed to like that answer—and he said he knows there will be “gray areas” in ESSA regulation. Still, he asked King to respect Congress’ consensus.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, 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 on, and credits his teachers, especially Alan Osterweil, with helping him feel secure and valued.
Alexander’s first question was on the timeline for implementation of ESSA. He wanted to know exactly when the department expects ESSA regulations will be completed, and when states’ plans for accountability and federal spending will be due.
And the education committee chairman got essentially the same answer the department has given everyone else, including reporters. King told him the department is reaching out to the education community and has already begun to think through the early stages of the regulation process. But he didn’t outline a specific step-by-step plan spelling out exactly what will happen, or when.
Alexander seemed satisfied with that answer for now, but asked King to respond promptly to any questions he, his staff, or Capitol Hill colleagues have as ESSA regulation is rolled out. (In turn, Alexander told King he’d refrain from sending long, politically-motivated letters.)
Murray’s first K-12 question was on the teacher shortage: 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 based on test scores, as they had to under the Obama 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 the achievement gap, the department may need to step in and ask them to try another solution. (Remember that tidbit, ESSA watchers.)
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 chief, he took a hard look at the amount of testing required and asked districts to do the same thing. Both ESSA and the Obama administration’s 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’s “optimistic” that will help reduce tests and make students feel better about having to take them.
- Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., asked King about the department’s cybersecurity issues, after a federal audit found the need for improvement. (He did not, however, bring up the department’s departing Chief Information Officer Danny Harris, whose tax and conflict of interest issues were cited by the department’s Inspector General, and became the subject of a House Government Reform and Oversight hearing.) King told him that the department is making progress on improving security.
- Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., asked about the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which he would like to expand. King said he’d like the funding to be used for students currently in the program, but he doesn’t think “vouchers are a scalable solution” for the challenge of providing an equitable education to all kids Scott and King, however, had a meeting of the minds over charter schools—they are both fans.
- There were also plenty of questions on higher education, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who wanted to know how the department promises to “deliver on the promises” it has made to students from Corinthian Colleges, which closed last year in the wake of legal trouble. (More here.)
So why the confirmation hearing? Obama had initially asked King to serve as “acting secretary” until the end of his term, but Alexander wanted an honest-to-goodness, confirmed secretary in charge of writing ESSA regulations.
The committee will consider King’s nomination on March 9—Alexander wasn’t sure exactly when the full Senate would take it up.
How did King think the hearing went? He sounded pretty happy in a quick interview afterward, saying it was a “constructive conversation.” (He even threw in the term “bipartisan.”)
Photo: Acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Feb. 25 during his confirmation hearing as the Secretary of Education. Susan Walsh/AP