President Obama doubled down on his commitment to the nation’s underserved students by selecting Dr. John King to succeed Arne Duncan as Acting Secretary of Education. Clearly, this administration has no plans of backing away over the next fifteen months from the aggressive education reform agenda it began pursuing six years ago.
At his heart, King is a passionate advocate for kids. He knows what it’s like to need an advocate, having lost both of his parents at age twelve. He also knows how important an individual teacher can be, having been personally uplifted by the too-often-overlooked educators who dedicate their lives to teaching the nation’s students.
His dedicated heart comes to this new position encased in a body bearing numerous battle scars. His previous experience as commissioner of education for the state of New York will serve him well in the legislative wrestling ring that has been made of the nation’s capital. He knows the fault lines in the fast-moving education policy environment.
Having pushed an aggressive state agenda of Common Core State Standards, more rigorous assessments, teacher evaluations, charter schools, and other education reforms, King will draw upon his experience of successes and setbacks in his deep commitment to do the right things for kids. My guess is that King will acknowledge making mistakes, but transforming the U.S. education system from the classroom to the legislative committee room requires both change and occasional failures. What is important is what is learned — and improved upon — from these experiences.
King left New York while the hard work of implementing higher standards and increasing support for teachers in implementing these standards across 700 districts began sapping political support from the statehouse. By stepping down, he removed the obvious symbol for growing opposition while giving his successor the opportunity to continue consolidating gains, including the commitment to providing professional development support to ensure there is a well-prepared teacher in every classroom.
King is ready to continue advancing the Obama administration’s agenda, including fighting against sequestration cuts to education programs and unveiling regulations to measure and improve the quality of teacher preparation programs. He has been an ardent supporter of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. While the administration’s education agenda is pretty well baked, King is well positioned to serve as executive chef.
King will have a particular opportunity to pursue new policy is in the area of the school-to-prison pipeline. Over the last few months, the administration has signaled an appetite to address the crippling reality of the over-representation of people of color in the nation’s criminal justice system. President Obama’s visit to a federal prison received much more news coverage than the joint guidance issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice on school discipline or the recent White House summit on this topic, but that does not change the fact that education is still the most effective means to keep kids out of jail and on the path of productive citizenship.
If he’s lucky, King just may be at the right place, at the right time when it comes to the holy grail of federal education policy: the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I’m dubious about the prospects for Congress to pass a final bill, but if it does, King will be the person with the pen to begin issuing regulations based on the authority Congress leaves to the executive branch under the new law. And for those, like me, still concerned about the lack of accountability in the current bills to require addressing needs of traditionally underserved students — there is no better advocate than John King to present the administration’s position to the congressional conference committee.
From my experience, there are benefits to being in the final year of a term. You can work to consolidate a few pieces of policy that you think are important, and you can address issues with a directness you might not be able to in the first year of a term. King can be frank about what the U.S. Department of Education has done right and what has not worked. He can use the bully pulpit to point the way to what needs to be done over the next four years. By going all out in the final months of the Obama administration, King can be a major figure in determining the success of this epic period for school districts, states, and the federal government in transforming education.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. He also served for 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.