President Obama has nominated John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year.
Officials at the White House had said before the announcement that the president was encouraged by the bipartisan support King has received in Congress, especially the commitment Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has made for a speedy consideration of his nomination. King, who took office when Arne Duncan stepped down in December, was originally going to remain the acting head of the department for the rest of Obama’s time in office.
“There is nobody better to continue leading our ongoing efforts to work toward preschool for all, prepare our kids so that they are ready for college and career, and make college more affordable,” Obama said, in a statement. “John knows from his own incredible life experience how education can transform a child’s future.”
The administration wants to have King firmly in place as Congress embarks on the reauthorization of higher education legislation, said officials who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Republican congressional leaders in the Senate and the House have said they want King, 41, to undergo the vetting process. In December, Alexander, chairman of the Senate education panel and an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, personally urged President Obama to formally nominate King.
He said he assured the president that he would work to see King through the nominating process, and that King would likely get GOP support “barring some sort of ethical lapse” discovered during the confirmation process. Alexander has argued that it is important for King to have the backing of the U.S. Senate as he implements the new law governing elementary and secondary education.
In an email Thursday, Alexander said “King will receive a prompt and fair hearing.”
He added: “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.”
Congress overwhelmingly passed an overhaul of federal education policy in December that significantly dials back the federal role in local schools, shifting greater authority to state and local officials. But the Education Department must craft regulations to implement the law, and tensions are growing between officials who want to embed Obama administration policies into new regulations and critics in Congress who want to limit the administration’s influence.
Federal law allows an “acting” Cabinet secretary for no longer than 210 days. In King’s case, that deadline would be July 29. But there are ways for the administration to get around that, experts say.
“I am glad the administration has put forward Dr. John King’s nomination,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member on the senate education committee. “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.”
King has a compelling life story but a complex recent professional history. The son of New York City educators, King was orphaned by age 12. He credits his public school teachers with saving his life and setting him on a path that led to degrees from Harvard, Yale and Columbia. He founded a high-achieving charter school in Boston and in 2011 became the first African American and Puerto Rican to serve as New York state education commissioner.
But in New York, he oversaw a rocky rollout of both the Common Core academic standards in math and reading as well as a teacher evaluation system tied to new tests based on those standards.
Critics said the state rushed the rollout, without properly training teachers and then holding them accountable for the new standards before local districts had completed new curriculums and classroom materials. Scores from the new tests were used as an element of a controversial evaluation system that affected personnel and salary decisions for some teachers. More than a third of principals in the state signed a letter protesting the new system, saying it was unfair to educators and created an unhealthy focus on test scores. They were joined by thousands of parents, teachers and administrators.
King scheduled a series of public meetings across the state in 2013 to try to quell the growing pushback, but they quickly dissolved into heckling sessions commandeered by irate parents.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) called the state’s handling of the Common Core standards “deeply flawed” and convened a task force that called for a “total reboot,” recommending that teachers not be judged on test scores until 2019.
While serving as education commissioner in New York, King gained praise for the creation of a small pilot that offered grants to districts to launch programs aimed at breaking up concentrated poverty in their schools. He has said that he plans to use competitive grants to encourage diversity on the federal level and will work with other agencies to encourage more integrated schools and communities.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who was critical of King’s tenure in New York, said, in a statement,”Since King became acting Education Secretary, we have seen both an understanding of the harmful effects of over-testing, 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.”
King joined the Obama administration last year as “senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of education” and was identified as Duncan’s successor in October. King lives in Takoma Park, Md. with his wife and their two young daughters, who attend Montgomery County Public Schools.