breaking

After turbulent tenure, State Ed Commissioner John King stepping down for federal ed job

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Former New York State Education Commissioner John King will take over for Arne Duncan as U.S. education secretary.

State Education Commissioner John King is stepping down to join the U.S. Education Department after three-and-a-half years leading the state’s turbulent and divisive transition to tough new learning standards and teacher evaluations.

King has served as the state’s top education official since 2011, during which time he managed the rollout of the Common Core standards and a new teacher-rating system that for the first time factored in student test scores. Both policies were backed by the federal government and many school-reform advocates, but they enraged many parents who saw their children’s test scores plummet and educators who felt ill-prepared for the sweeping changes. Even as his critics, including the state teachers union, called for his ouster, King defended the initiatives as necessary reforms.

King will step down at the end of the year and join the Obama administration as a senior advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“I’m humbled and honored to have the chance to work with President Obama and Secretary Duncan,” King said in a statement. “We have accomplished great things for New York’s students. As a kid whose life was saved by the incredible teachers I had in public schools in Brooklyn, I’m proud to have served my fellow New Yorkers.”

King, the state’s first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner, was 36 when he was appointed to replace David Steiner, under whom he had been a top deputy.

He moved swiftly to put the new learning standards into practice after the state adopted the them in 2010, introducing Common Core tests ahead of most states and before many schools had updated their textbooks. The first round of Common Core tests last year caused students’ scores to plummet, and when the changes drew inevitable backlash, King proved less savvy at managing criticism. Last fall, he called off a series of public meetings about the new standards after the first one proved contentious, earning scorn from parents and the state teachers union.

“The disconnect between the commissioner’s vision and what parents, educators and students want for their public education system became so great, NYSUT voted ‘no confidence’ in Commissioner King last spring and called for his resignation,” the New York State United Teachers said in a statement Wednesday, adding that it hoped King “has learned from his stormy tenure in New York.”

As the criticism mounted, King was also losing crucial allies across the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed legislation to untie student test scores from teacher evaluations for two years, something that King had steadfastly refused to support. And the de Blasio administration in New York City has proved a less willing partner than the Bloomberg administration, sparring with the state over its plans to intervene in struggling schools.

King has also criticized the city’s education department at points, especially for its enrollment policies that he said too often left schools with concentrations of high-needs students. While his strong support of charter schools contrasts with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s mixed views on charters, she has publicly backed King and the Common Core.

“It has been a privilege to work so closely with Commissioner King as we move our school system forward,” Fariña said in a statement. “I congratulate him on his new role and look forward to our continued collaboration.”

King’s departure leaves a leadership void at the state education department at a time when its direction is less certain. The Race to the Top education grants created by the Obama administration pumped millions into the state education budget during King’s tenure, empowering him to push for sweeping policy changes, but that funding is now running out.

He is the second top state education official to take a job at the federal education department in less than a year: Amy McIntosh, who oversaw teacher evaluations as a senior fellow at the Board of Regent’s Research Fund, is now a deputy assistant secretary. Two of the state’s deputy commissioners, Elizabeth Berlin and Ken Wagner, will manage the department after King’s departure, officials said, and a subcommittee of the state’s Board of Regents will launch a search for a permanent replacement.

The news of King’s move, which became public on Wednesday evening, appeared to catch some state education officials off guard. Sources said that King had not informed staff about the move and that an announcement was planned for next week’s Board of Regents meeting.

But King has been a favorite for high-profile positions outside of New York before. In 2010, when he was serving as deputy commissioner, King turned down an offer to take over as superintendent of Newark’s schools. King had also been tapped to join the federal education department before, an offer he also turned down because his tenure in Albany was young, sources said.

Before serving as state commissioner, King served as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, a charter school network and founded the high-performing Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston.

King has deep roots in Brooklyn, where his father was the borough’s first African-American school principal. King attended P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island, and he credited teachers there for inspiring him after both of his parents died before his 13th birthday.

“As a teacher, principal and policymaker, my goal is and has always been to give every student what Mr. Osterweil gave me — a classroom where they feel supported and inspired and challenged,” King said in April.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.