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Every Student Succeeds Act

Obama to Officially Nominate John B. King Jr. as Education Secretary

By Alyson Klein — February 11, 2016 5 min read
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Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. may not be “acting” in his role much longer. President Barack Obama officially nominated King for the post.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been urging the White House to officially nominate someone to succeed former Secretary Arne Duncan, since back in December.

Alexander has stressed the importance of having an honest-to-goodness secretary overseeing regulation of the brand-new Every Student Succeeds Act, and hit that theme again in statement Thursday.

“For proper accountability, especially as we work with the administration on implementing the new law governing elementary and secondary education, it is important to have in charge of the department a member of the president’s cabinet confirmed by the United States Senate,” he said.

And Alexander said King would receive a “prompt and fair” hearing in the committee.

So will King’s nomination sail through the Senate, like Duncan’s did, or will he get a good grilling?

Since taking office last month, King has talked a lot about his own background—he’s Puerto Rican and African-American and lost his parents (both educators) early. He credits New York City public school teachers with “saving” his life. And civil rights advocates have been happy with his comments about the importance of preserving equity for disadvantaged students as states craft their plans to implement ESSA, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Carmel Martin, the executive vice-president for policy at the Center for American Progress, and a former top Obama education official, called King “an exceptional leader.” Senate Republicans, she said, have sat on other high-level nominations for months, but now that Obama has taken their suggestion to officially nominate King, they “owe him—and schools, students, and educators—a swift confirmation.”

And two Republicans said they weren’t expecting a bumpy ride.

“I’d think it’s more likely to be relatively smooth,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute in an email. “Republicans have much bigger things on their minds this year than confirming someone to handle turn-out-the-lights duty at the Department.”

To be sure, GOP lawmakers are worried that the department may be looking for ways to expand the federal footprint more than they think Congress intended on ESSA, Hess said. But “King is a relatively uncontroversial figure with an appealing story and the Republican would rather see a Secretary than an unconfirmed caretaker.”

And Mike Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, pointed to Alexander’s comments. “I take Chairman Alexander at his word: It will be smooth sailing. With plenty of anti-Common Core rhetoric thrown in for good measure.”

Still, there could be tense moments. Lawmakers (especially Republicans, at least publicly) are not so thrilled about what they saw as big time executive overreach under Obama in general, and especially in the education department under Duncan, who pushed through favored policies (like teacher evaluation through student outcomes) without buy-in from Capitol Hill.

King could catch at least a little of that flak, even though he joined the Obama administration pretty late in the game. He was tapped to be a senior aide filling the duties of deputy secretary in late 2014.

And King may get a tough question or two from Democrats. He’s likely to be asked about his tenure as state chief in New York, where he clashed with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, on implementation of the common core state standards and teacher evaluation through student outcomes.

But it sounds like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education panel, is a fan. Here’s a snippet from her statement on the nomination:

I am glad the administration has put forward Dr. John King's nomination. Through his personal background, he has a strong connection to the ways education can make a tremendous difference in a child's life, and he has spent his career fighting for kids. Especially now, as the department implements the Every Student Succeeds Act, it will be vital to have strong leadership to make sure the law fulfills its promise to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education, regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make."

And over on the House side, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., also has King’s back.

“Dr. King has spent his career dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for historically underserved students,” Scott said in a statement. “As a teacher, devoted school leader, and former State Commissioner of Education for New York, Dr. King has the experience to guide the department in carrying out its mission of educational equity for all.”

King’s first appearance in Congress last week wasn’t exactly smiley faces and rainbows. He heard some tough (and partisan?) talk from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the House Government and Oversight Committee, on his handling of the tax and other problems of a high-ranking career official at the department. Chaffetz said King was “failing” to prevent those sorts of issues.

King agreed that the employee showed a lack of judgement, but said he had been counseled on his behavior, hadn’t broken the law—and that the issue had been handled back in 2013. The employee’s actions may or may not come up over on the Senate side.

But ESSA implementation is almost certain to be a factor. Alexander, another key ESSA architect and the man who will preside over King’s confirmation, has made it clear he’s taking oversight of the new law seriously.

In fact, in a floor speech Thursday, he read from a letter from 10 groups, including the National Governors Association, the AFT, the National Education Association, principals’ groups, school board groups, and more, that emphasized the law’s focus on local and state control.

His committee, he said, will “make sure that what happens is what Congress says should happen” and that’s “an era of innovation and excellence” driven by local decisions. He’ll have at least six hearings either on ESSA, or featuring education department staff, this year, he said.

The House education committee already got a jump start on that oversight work on Wednesday. And during that hearing it became obvious that Republicans are making it clear that, from their perspective, the law is about local control. King’s confirmation hearing will be another opportunity to drive home that point.

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