Education Funding

Less Leverage Awaits Official to Step In as Ed. Dept. Head

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 12, 2015 6 min read
John B. King Jr., will take over on an acting basis from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who leaves office in December.

The announcement that John B. King Jr. will succeed Arne Duncan on an acting basis in heading the U.S. Department of Education almost immediately gave way to one key question: What kind of education secretary is he likely to be?

At first glance, King is far less of an unknown in crucial policy areas than Duncan was in 2008 when President Barack Obama picked him to run the department. King’s three-year tenure as New York state commissioner of education from 2011 to 2014 showed support for priorities similar to Duncan’s, and he had a similar history of tussling with powerful forces such as the teachers’ unions.

“John King has some of the same political baggage that Arne did, and some of the same attributes,” said Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the consulting group Bellwether Education Partners and a former Education Department staffer. “They’re both earnest people who have stood up for the same basic policy reforms—stronger standards, high-quality assessments, better teacher evaluations.”

Yet King comes in with far less leverage. The Education Department’s discretionary spending is all but gone. Proposals on Capitol Hill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would significantly strip the secretary’s authority. And it is unlikely that, this late in the administration’s tenure, King would announce any major initiatives or policy shifts, observers said.

New York Background

At the department, King has served as the agency’s face on initiatives aimed at improving student equity. He has been serving in the capacity of a senior adviser and did not go through congressional confirmation. By being named the acting secretary, he will again avoid that process.

The son of educators, King, who is black and Puerto Rican, was orphaned at age 12. He credits his teachers in the New York City public school system with his success, saying they made sure he didn’t fall through the cracks.

“New York City public school teachers are the reason that I’m alive,” King said, as Obama introduced him at a news conference as his new acting education secretary Oct. 2. “They gave me hope about [what] could be possible for me in life.”

King appeared eager to bring Duncan’s initiatives in for a landing. “It’s an incredible agenda, and I’m proud to be able to carry it forward,” he said.

Before joining the New York state education department, King helped open several charter schools via Uncommon Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit charter-management organization.

King’s tenure in New York was marked by tumult, much of it the byproduct of implementing the state’s ambitious, $700 million Race to the Top plan. Among other policy shifts, the state adopted the Common Core State Standards in early 2011, began crafting a statewide teacher-evaluation system linked to student achievement, and announced changes to teacher-preparation programs and licensing.

Teacher evaluation would soon prove to be the toughest lift. Although the legislation that created the evaluation system had been supported by the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, the finer-grained details posed significant challenges.

State regulations fleshing out the law were contested, leading NYSUT to sue over their format. The state was also among the first to introduce student tests measuring common-core skills, in 2012-13. That generated great concern among teachers who said they did not have aligned curricular materials, and ultimately fueled the “opt out” movement among parents; nearly 1 in 5 students sat out state testing during the 2014-15 testing season.

Pushing the Agenda

King did press hard on some instructional areas. He was instrumental in supporting the development of the common-core-aligned curriculum, EngageNY. The open-source curriculum is reportedly the most-used online curriculum tool in the country, although it, too, proved controversial. Some teachers complained that it felt too “scripted.”

In navigating the difficult role, King proved to be, at different times, both flexible and stubborn.

In 2013, when the New York City district and its union could not reach agreement on how to evaluate teachers, King’s ruling combined elements from both parties’ arguments. Yet during a series of often-raucous open forums with parents and community members that same year, he was a steadfast supporter of the tougher common-core standards and teacher evaluation and pushed back against plans to delay the requirements.

Teacher colleges, meanwhile, struggled to ready teachers for a new series of harder licensing exams, part of the state’s Race to the Top promises. Many complaints centered on a demonstration-teaching exam, the edTPA, that critics said was put in place too quickly. King defended the new tests, though, maintaining that they would help increase rigor in teaching programs.

The pressures of moving so far, so fast—coupled with an internal shuffling at NYSUT—led to a protracted battle with the union, culminating in its vote of “no confidence” and call for King’s ouster in 2014.

Looking Ahead

David Steiner, King’s predecessor at the helm of the New York education department, was effusive in his praise for his former deputy.

“He is the hardest-working, smartest, and most dedicated educator I’ve ever worked with,” said Steiner, now the executive director of an education policy institute at Johns Hopkins University. “He understands as few do that a small detail, be it in a structure of evaluation or implementing a standard, or thinking about a budgetary issue, may turn out to be huge.”

He’ll need that skill to keep abreast of the No Child Left Behind Act waiver process, which has led to significant variation in how states measure school progress, and to oversee the upcoming peer review of states’ assessment systems.

A NYSUT spokesman called King an “ideologue” and said the union was urging its members to call the White House to express their displeasure about his appointment.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of NYSUT’s parent unions, voiced hope that King might push the department in a different direction, but wasn’t sanguine on the matter.

“John King could be ‘Nixon Goes to China.’ He could be the person who helps get [the ESEA] fixed,” she said. “Hopefully, he’s learned enough from everything that’s happened in his life to do that. But New York was center stage to this polarization. New York’s [teacher]-evaluation system has changed four times. It’s ridiculous.”

While King is unlikely to change course on federal policy, his background suggests a renewed awareness of issues important to the civil rights community, including keeping a focus on disadvantaged students in accountability systems. In fact, that was the main topic at an Oct. 8 forum on the ESEA rewrite that marked King’s very first appearance on Capitol Hill.

“John’s decision in New York to make those [issues] front and center certainly makes me believe he understands very much how this needs to be a priority for all schools and driven through the state ratings systems, and not just something on the side,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, which advocates for such students.

Assistant Editors Alyson Klein and Liana Heitin contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Less Leverage Awaits Official Set to Step In As Head of Ed. Dept.

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