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Federal Q&A

Q&A: John B. King Jr. on ESSA and on the Obama Administration Legacy

By Alyson Klein — September 19, 2016 9 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. has been at the helm of department for less than a year, and he only has about four months left in office under the current administration. But in that time, he’s been able to help set the stage for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, including a tough political fight over a wonky spending rule.

We caught up with King during his annual “Back to School” bus tour and interviewed him somewhere between Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans.

Here’s a shortened transcript of our conversation. It’s been edited for clarity and brevity, and some parts have been paraphrased.

You released guidance Friday on using evidence to turn around low-performing schools. We noticed that you seem to talk to more research organizations than any other secretary of education we can remember. So why do you see research as such an important part of school improvement?

“Education as a sector does not have a great track record of making evidence-based decisions and investments. And unfortunately if you look over the long sweep of educational history there are lots of examples of fad-based decisionmaking. There are hard questions around which we need more evidence.” King sees an opportunity for researchers to begin to tackle those questions in ESSA.

When your predecessor Arne Duncan first came into the department, there was bipartisan interest in higher, uniform standards and teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes. By the time you took over the reins, those things had become deeply politicized and there were a lot of bad feelings. So what was that like for you coming into an environment like that?

“Ultimately on the issue of standards, we are at very good place. We’ve got virtually every state working toward college and career-ready standards. ... I think we’ve got real national momentum around higher standards. No question there’s been a lot of politics, some misinformation, but at the end of the day, the vast majority of states, almost all are working on supporting their teachers to [teach to] higher standards. There’s support for the standards across parties, across regions. Educators are strongly supportive of higher standards.

“On teacher evaluation, the picture is more varied .. There are examples of states doing very thoughtful work. ... There are places around the country that are innovating about how you think about student performance. It doesn’t just have to be test scores. .. At the same time there’s no question that there are states who have had much more contentious discussions around evaluation. But on the whole there are states doing meaningful work on training their principals to give good feedback. There are more places where there are rich school-level, district-level conversations, ... In the net, I think there’s been progress, but the politics of it are difficult. And you have to acknowledge that there are places that have been excessive in their reliance and use of traditional standardized tests for accountability on a variety of levels.”

California’s state board recently approved a system that uses a dashboard for accountability instead of summative ratings. Are you worried that since you won’t be in office much longer states don’t expect to have to follow the regulations?

King noted the regulations are still just in the draft stages.

“I’m confident that states will act [in a way that’s consistent with the regulations]. ... People have drawn too sharp a distinction between the dashboard and the summative ratings approach. Ultimately they are not in contention. The law requires summative ratings. The law requires that states [identify schools that] are the lowest-performing, the law requires that states identify schools that have significant gaps, and schools that don’t fall in either of those categories. So at a minimum, the law requires three levels of summative ratings. At the same time, we’ve been very clear that a dashboard of indicators can be valuable, and that we want transparency from states around not only academic indicators but indicators like access to advanced coursework, chronic absenteeism ... so in the end, I think people can pursue both.”

Do you expect that you will make major changes to your draft regulations for supplement-not-supplant (a spending provision in the law) after the comment period?

“Some of the criticism suggests that people haven’t read the proposed rule. ... For example some of the criticisms have not acknowledged that the draft rule allows states to propose an alternative approach to meet the supplement-not-supplant requirement, which is the statute. Some of the criticism has not acknowledged that the draft rule takes into consideration some of the fears around unintended consequences that were raised by critics in their comments, both in negotiated rulemaking and afterward.

“So I would hope that people will read carefully the draft rule, and then respond with thoughtful comments. We’ll certainly consider the comments, but what we won’t do is ignore the supplement-not-supplant provision of the law, to the extent that folks are calling for allowing districts to use state and local dollars in such a way that you have 20, 30 percent more in state and local dollars spent on an affluent school than on a high-needs school ten blocks away.

“That is not something that we can accept. That is clearly a violation of the words of the statute. And I appreciate that [Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, R-Va.] have expressed not only support for the proposed rule but made very clear in expressing that our approach is consistent with the requirement of the words of the statute.”

When ESSA passed it was this beautiful bipartisan moment, this Christmas miracle. Do you think the controversy over supplement-not-supplant has ruined the bipartisanship we saw when this law passed?

King noted that his recent bus tour stopped in states with both Democratic and Republican governors and with legislatures controlled both by Democrats and Republicans.

“I think there’s bipartisan spirit around ESSA. I’ve talked to state chiefs... And across those states and across the country, there is enthusiasm [around the] opportunity that ESSA provides to focus on a well-rounded education, for college and career readiness. I think there’s general enthusiasm about looking at important traditional indicators of school success ... I think the bipartisan consensus remains, but ultimately, it is a civil rights law, and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are protecting students’ civil rights. That’s the approach we’ve taken with supplement-not-supplant. That’s the approach we’ve taken with the accountability regulations.”

There’s been a lot of pushback on the timeline for identifying schools for comprehensive improvement. Do you expect to make changes there?

“It’s certainly a place where we have received a lot of feedback. We want to listen carefully to that feedback. We are open to the possibility of having a timeline that ensures states continue to do work in the schools that they’ve identified while they transition to new accountability systems. We’re working our way through the feedback and comment, I don’t want to get ahead of the process.”

When you were appointed secretary, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, had some serious criticism of your tenure in New York. Were you disheartened to see her on the list of education advisers to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton? Are you worried about the direction a potential Clinton administration might take K-12?

“The only thing I’ll say about the next administration is that the president has made tremendous progress over the past seven and half years.” King pointed to higher graduation rates and college-going rates for Black and Latino students, and expanded access to early learning. “I would expect the next administration to build on that record, whoever is the secretary.”

Some parts of the Every Student Succeeds Act are vague or seemingly contradictory, like the language on students in foster care or test participation. Has that made your job of interpreting the law more difficult?

“The job of the department is to put out regulations and technical assistance to ensure successful implementation of the law. And that’s what we’re doing. So where there are ambiguities and where is there is a need for additional regulation, we’re trying to provide that. That is our responsibility.

“But I do think in this debate about [supplement-not-supplant] see that there are different views about what the law means, and I think no single member of Congress should claim to be the sole arbitrator of congressional intent.”

You’ve been a teacher, principal, state chief, secretary of education. Which of those jobs was the hardest? The most rewarding?

“It’s been an incredible honor to be the secretary, to serve this president. That said, teaching requires thousands of decisions everyday in the classroom and gives you the opportunity to have a huge impact on the lives of the young people in the classroom. There’s a way in which teaching calls on such a broad variety of skills. But each of the jobs has been fascinating, I’ve learned quite a bit, and I’ve really tried to approach each of the roles” using his own best teachers as a model.

What do you wish you’d known when you took this job in January? What advice would you give to yourself coming into the job if you could?

“I don’t know if you can know ahead of time. ... [There’s] a profound responsibility to focus on students despite the tremendous potential for political distraction. Whether it’s supplement-not-supplant or accountability or higher education accountability, there’s lots of political rhetoric that is focused on interests of those other than those of students. There’s a tremendous responsibility in this job to keep perspective on [those] politics and to keep putting students at the center of decisionmaking.”

Would you stick around for the next administration if Hillary Clinton wins the White House and asks you to be her education secretary?

King demurred on this question. (It’s not the first time I or someone else has asked).

“It’s been a tremendous honor to serve this president,” he said.

He reiterated his advice to the next secretary to build on what he sees as the accomplishments of the Obama administration when it comes to graduation rates and access to early learning and college, particularly for historically disadvantaged groups of students.

I also asked King what he sees as his next step after the department and if he would ever consider returning to the classroom. He told me he wants to continue his working on behalf of “kids like me.” (King, who is Black and Latino, lost both his parents early in life.) That could include some teaching.

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