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Prospects for the Next President Keeping John B. King Jr. as Education Secretary

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 22, 2016 5 min read
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Before and even after John B. King Jr. was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education last week, many people who discussed him assumed that he would be sticking around just for the next 10 months or so. After that, a new presidential administration will take over, and many believe that King will be replaced.

But there’s no law saying that must happen. Just ask former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

So what are the odds that King would be asked by the next president to stick around? In this scenario, Gates notwithstanding, we’re making our own assumption that a Republican president would cut King loose and that either of the Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, would have to win the general election in November in order for King to even have a chance at keeping the job. And King, of course, would have to want to stick around himself. We asked the Education Department whether he’s expressed an opinion one way or the other about staying on as education secretary, and we’ll update the post if we hear back. UPDATE: The department sent along this statement: “Secretary King is focused on the job at hand doing everything he can in the time remaining in the Obama Administration to ensure all students - no matter their zip code - have the opportunity to be successful.”

I rang up Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education who supports King, to ask him for any arguments or rationale for the education secretary sticking around. (Some important disclosure for Aldeman’s comments: As we’ve mentioned before, King’s wife, Melissa Steel King, also works at Bellwether Education as an associate partner.)

Aldeman made a pitch for, among other things, stability, something he said is underrated in education policymaking circles.

“We wouldn’t have any wild swings in terms of new decisions or interpreting the same thing in different ways,” Aldeman said, if King stayed at his post.

We recently explored how much implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act might get done during the last phase of the Obama administration, and how much the next administration might have to tackle.

Aldeman also highlighted King’s personal story, which the secretary frequently discusses as a way to point out that education and public schools helped save his life—King, who is of Puerto Rican and African-American descent, was orphaned at age 12. But it’s King’s record and policy views that ultimately matter more, Aldeman noted. (King served as New York’s commissioner from 2011 through 2014, and oversaw the state’s shift to the Common Core State Standards, new tests, and new teacher evaluations.)

“It’s a policy conflict really,” Aldeman added. “People are not likely to temper those criticisms unless they change or he changes.”

What’s the biggest potential obstacle to King sticking around past January 2017?

Let’s start with the hypothetical that Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. The most obvious answer goes like this:

• The national teachers’ unions backed Clinton early in the Democratic primary and support her very strongly.

• The unions, in particular the American Federation of Teachers, have been pretty critical of King.

• The unions, therefore, would lobby Clinton not to keep King.

Take this February statement from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, issued after King was nominated but before he was confirmed last week. She said that her union didn’t like King’s nomination “because his tenure as New York state education commissioner was marked by fixating on high-stakes testing and dismissing the concerns of educators and parents.”

(That sounds quite similar to the rationale that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the only Democrat to vote against King’s confirmation last week, used to justify her vote, telling Newsday in a statement that, “John King’s tenure in New York was very adversarial, leaving families, students and teachers without a voice on important issues and therefore I cannot support his nomination at this time.”)

But in the same February statement, Weingarten also said that since King had become acting secretary, "[W]e have seen both an understanding of the harmful effects of overtesting, and a willingness to promote both the reset of federal education policy and the collaboration with educators and parents that are at the heart of the new federal education law.”

And even though the New York State United Teachers isn’t a national union, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the bitter feelings NYSUT, which is an influential union under the AFT umbrella, has toward King for his actions in New York. NYSUT President Karen Magee made this clear after King’s nomination: “During his tenure as New York’s education commissioner, the joy of teaching and learning was eroded by a wave of misguided top-down policies that focused on overuse of testing and punitive measures exacted upon teachers. New York State is only just beginning to recover from the destructive policies of John King.”

Meanwhile, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said she also appreciated the “overtures” from King, after he became acting secretary, about how teachers are discussed and relied upon in education policy circles.

And what if Sanders reaches the White House? On the Senate education committee, Sanders joined the rest of his Democratic colleagues by voting to advance King’s nomination to the full Senate earlier this month. But he is listed as not voting in the full Senate on King’s nomination. Generally speaking, if Sanders wins out, there’s no reason to believe the unions would significantly alter their political strategy regarding King.

So what do the AFT and NEA say specifically about the prospect of King sticking around?

Last week, the AFT responded with a brief statement, “We haven’t said anything about this hypothetical.”

And the NEA said it has no position on the matter right now.

What about other folks who have been critical of King? Mark Naison, the co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association, a group of public school teachers that opposes many of the Obama administration’s K-12 policies, said in his view there is “no chance” that Sanders, if elected, would keep King around, and “very little chance” that Clinton would.

Speaking more about Clinton specifically, Naison added that even though he believes the AFT and NEA endorsed Clinton too quickly in the Democratic primary last year, he hopes that if Clinton is elected, the unions would at least use their influence gained through their early endorsements to convince Clinton to replace King, “though they won’t exactly admit it.”

“I think they would tell her ... that King is too divisive,” Naison said.

Photos: File photo of John B. King Jr.; former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center left, and New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, right, share a laugh during a visit to an early childhood development center in the Brooklyn borough of New York.