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Federal Opinion

Five Items for New Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.'s To-Do List

By Rick Hess — March 17, 2016 4 min read
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John King is the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Education, after surviving a 49-40 confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate. I know King and I like and respect him. But the closeness of the vote—especially for a turn-out-the-lights duty stint at the Department of Education—just reminds us how must distrust and division there is in Washington and surrounding education reform.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have zero problem with hard-hitting partisan disagreement. It can be healthy, especially when tethered to a sense of responsibility and mutual respect. And some of the debates in education today—such as around school vouchers and collective bargaining—are inevitably going to be heated, because they’re rooted in self-interest and ideology.

But there is also a lot of division in schooling today that is neither inevitable nor necessary. Much of it is the product of miscalculation, overstepping, arrogance, and dismissiveness on the part of well-meaning reformers and Obama appointees. As a respected reformer and now as a leading light in the Obama firmament, King has a chance to set some important things right. That would allow him to leave the Obama years in a healthier, more constructive place.

Here are five things I’d urge King to say and do, the sooner the better:

One, he should follow President Obama’s lead and do some apologizing. Early in his tenure, Obama apologized several times on behalf of the U.S. for things done long ago. King did a bit of that when he suggested the other week that it was a mistake for reformers make teachers feel scapegoated or blamed. That was a start. King should similarly acknowledge that it was wrong to casually dismiss Common Core skeptics as “tin-foil hat” conspiracy theorists; that Race to the Top and ESEA may have raised legitimate concerns about excessive federal control; and that opt-out parents have a point about overlong, excessive, and unhelpful testing. You get the idea. Admissions like these could help start to wipe the slate and let reasonable people on both sides of these divides find a more civil, less bitter way forward.

Two, he should try to redress the bitter distrust that has taken root between Congress and the Department during the Duncan years. Under Duncan, a lack of attention to cultivating relationships with the legislative branch, coupled with the Secretary’s own occasional contemptuous outbursts towards Republicans, created a toxic environment. Members of Congress struggled to get meaningful responses to concerns about the activities of the Office of Civil Rights or regarding ESEA waivers. In truth, I don’t think Duncan or his team ever quite grasped how much venom they inspired among Capitol Hill Republicans, because they didn’t make much effort to find out. Regular efforts to reach out to members, promptly answer their concerns, solicit their views, and share thinking with staff would go a long way when it comes to implementing ESSA, tackling higher ed, and even moving more routine legislation.

Three, he should visibly and aggressively involve educators and local officials in the implementation of ESSA. Foundations are steering funds to the usual suspects—national nonprofits, advocacy groups, think tanks, and such—to help states devise post-ESSA policies. It can be easy for local superintendents, classroom educators, and even state legislators to feel like they’re on the outside looking in as these things unfold. Duncan’s “Teach to Lead” initiative can provide a terrific starting place for doing just this. Providing educators and local officials with the opportunity to put ideas forward can help them connect with important stakeholders while putting the onus on them to devise suggestions that are workable and constructive.

Fourth, King should make it clear that he is interested in listening to and engaging with those in the states who’ve had concerns about the Obama administration’s efforts—but have been afraid to give offense or put their ESEA waiver at risk. A number of state chiefs (and even Democratic governors) tell of feeling cold-shouldered by the Secretary and the Department. King should work to reassure state chiefs and governors that it’s okay to be honest, especially now that the Secretary’s authority has been curtailed. This can leech frustration and venom that otherwise gets channeled in other ways.

Fifth, King can ensure that the Department of Education tackles ESSA implementation with due respect for statute and the intent of Congress. As the Department shapes ESSA for the next administration, King has a chance to see that the legislative branch is consulted, that the work is pursued in a bipartisan and collegial fashion, and that new regulations and guidelines are careful to hew to the letter of the law. If King does this, the law will be off to a strong start and King’s efforts will be much more likely to have a salutary and lasting impact.

King has a lot of freedom at this point. He’s got a short tenure ahead of him, a president with other things on his mind, and a nation more focused on Trump and Clinton than the ins and outs of education policy. He might feel the urge to double-down on favorite policies and give them a little extra nudge, but I think he’ll be more effective, do more good, and be able to look back on his tenure with more sense of accomplishment if he views these next ten months as a chance to clean up the toxicity that has infused school reform in Washington and across the nation.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.