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Senior ED Adviser King on NCLB, Race to Top, and Coming In As Things Wind Down

By Alyson Klein — March 11, 2015 6 min read
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John King, the “senior adviser” who is essentially serving as the deputy secretary of education, went from one tough edu-job—state school chief in New York—to another, second in command at the U.S. Department of Education at the tail end of the Obama administration.

The department and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have launched a lot of bold and politically tricky initiatives during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Now officials are trying to land the plane.

So what are King’s plans and priorities as the administration draws to a close? Both halves of Politics K-12 sat down with him to find out. Below, in Q&A fashion, is a summary of a 30-minute conversation we had with King on Tuesday afternoon.

How did King wind up in the education field to begin with?

King seems to have had K-12 education as his birthright, in a way. He grew up in New York City, where both of his parents were educators. King’s mother passed away when he was in elementary school, and his father developed Alzeihmer’s, making for a really tough home life. It was a teacher, Alan Osterweil, who helped give him confidence and challenge him academically, through grades 4, 5, and 6.

At that time, “school took on this very central role in my life,” he said. “At a time when life at home was very unstable, school was great,” he said.

The experience moved him, he said, to pass on to other children what Osterweil had taught him. He began volunteering with K-12 students while in college and eventually became a teacher, and a principal. He later led a network of high-performing charter schools (called the Uncommon Schools) in Massachussetts, New Jersey, and New York.

His early experiences have helped shaped his policy views, including when it comes to educating poor and minority students.

“I was blessed to have teachers who invested in me and saw possibility for me,” he said. “Teachers could have looked at me and said here’s an African-American male Latino student with a home life in crisis in an urban public school and what chance does he have? But instead they looked at me and they saw an opportunity to help me grow academically and provide a supportive environment and so the question I think for our country is how do we ensure schools are doing that for every child?”

What exactly is King’s portfolio as a senior adviser who is basically the deputy secretary?

King oversees the Education Department’s pre-K through 12 work, which includes everything from special education and English-language learners, to innovation, human resources, and IT. And he doesn’t seem to think that whether or not he gets congressional confirmation makes a big difference. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, he said, “is laying out a vision,” and it’s up to the rest of the staff at the department to execute on it, he said.

During much of Obama’s first term, many folks criticized Duncan for not surrounding himself with enough (or any) top advisers who had deep experience at a state education agency. Now, he has two former state chiefs serving in key roles: King and Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. So how is King planning to help Duncan work with states on everything from prekindergarten to No Child Left Behind Act waivers?

King noted that many of the administration’s initiatives rely on states to develop policy and support for districts. “I think it’s important that we are mindful of both what we are asking of states and the kinds of supports that states need,” he said. “One of the challenges for many is capacity. ... Do they have the capacity to effectively support their districts in taking on really challenging change? There are states that are demonstrating tremendous progress, and there are states that clearly need additional support, and I think part of our role is to help states get their work done with districts. And also to try to foster and support their innovative leadership. When states have creative solutions to problems, we should help clear the way for them.”

King is coming in at a time when the Obama administration no longer has $100 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to encourage states to adopt its vision of education redesign. How does he plan to guide policy without having that kind of money to work with?

King talked about the department’s plans to release research and evidence to show what’s worked in the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, which is meant to scale up promising practices at the state and district level. The department will also be looking at other competitive grant programs, including Race to the Top, to identify best practices. And he talked about the president’s proposed additional funding for i3 and the First in the World Fund, which is a kind of i3 for higher education.

In his role as commissioner of New York schools, King played an integral role in the securing the state’s $700 million Race to the Top winnings. What does King see as the key successes of the administration’s hallmark education competition? What could have gone better? (One note: King was only able to address Race to the Top in general, not New York specifically).

King noted that, at this point, more than 40 states are pursuing standards aimed at preparing students for higher education and the workforce. (Many states adopted the Common Core in part to be competitive for Race to the Top.) And he said states are using their Race to the Top dollars and other funds for extensive professional development, including training aligned to Common Core State Standards and other high standards. He also noted the program’s focus on low-performing schools, and revamping teacher preparation, evaluation, and support. (That’s pretty much everything that has to do with the program.)

But what about the fact that many Race to the Top states have scaled back the time table or ambition of their teacher-evaluation systems, ditched the assessment consortia funded through the program, or reconsidered the common core standards altogether. Does King think that the department has gotten its money’s worth?

“Race to the Top was intended to be seed funding to galvanize states taking on raising standards. It’s not the federal role to prescribe standards,” King said. Still, most states are moving toward expectations aimed at preparing students for college and the workforce. “Will states tweak their standards? Absolutely. But we have momentum toward higher standards.”

What has the department’s role been in shaping the bipartisan draft being negotiated by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

King said the department has been clear on its vision for reauthorization, both in a January speech from Duncan, and in a lot of subsequent appearances. (Those include increased resources for early learning and a continued focus on the lowest performing schools.) Plus, he said the administration is in regular communication with folks on Capitol Hill.

Is King worried that if there is no reauthorization, the next president could issue waivers from the law that would supersede those of the Obama administration? For instance, a potential President Rand Paul could issue waivers for states that are willing to embrace vouchers. Does King think the department opened up a can of worms by issuing waivers?

King said he thinks there’s a lot of “bipartisan momentum” around much of the department’s agenda, including investing in early learning. And he says that groups representing education officials, such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, have put forward plans to rewrite the law that mirror pieces of the department’s agenda, including when it comes to maintaining annual testing. So it sounds like he thinks that states will want to keep pushing on those policies even if a new administration has other priorities.

Speaking of early learning, what’s the Obama administration’s vision when it comes to early learning and a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the law?

In a perfect world, King said, the administration wants to see the president’s big “Preschool for All” program added to the law. But if that doesn’t happen, the Obama folks at least want “real resources and meaningful progress toward the goal of expanding early learning.”