Former New York State Education Commissioner John King will take over the federal education department in President Barack Obama’s final year in office, the president announced Friday.
King’s appointment signals potentially deepening attention to education equity issues for the Obama administration.
Arne Duncan, who has been education secretary since Obama first came into office in 2008, will step down at the end of 2015. He is set to move back to Chicago, where he was schools chief before joining the Obama administration and where his wife and children recently moved from Washington, D.C.
King joined the department as a senior advisor to Duncan in December, shortly after resigning from New York’s education department amid controversy over new learning standards and teacher evaluations. He had been commissioner for three and a half years.
[Here’s our timeline of King’s turbulent tenure.]
Duncan brought the nation’s education system “sometimes kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” Obama said during a Friday afternoon press conference. “We are making progress and we’re not going to stop in these last 15 months,” he added.
Duncan oversaw the creation of the Race to the Top program, which allowed states to apply for $4.35 billion in federal funding in exchange for changing their teacher evaluation laws, overhauling teacher preparation programs, promoting charter schools, and committing to shared learning standards. New York was one of 16 states to win a slice of the funding, and King was most responsible for crafting the application.
On Friday, King praised the administration’s policies around early-childhood education, tougher learning standards, and college access.
“It’s an incredible agenda and I’m proud to be able to carry it forward,” King said at the White House press briefing.
He becomes acting education secretary at a time when the federal education department’s role is in flux. Obama will not seek his official nomination in the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Republicans who have grown increasingly critical of the federal government’s role in education policy.
That means King’s ability to push major policy changes may be limited. But he is likely to have wide latitude to advocate for an agenda that he deems important.
That agenda is likely to focus on equity issues. In a speech at the National Coalition on School Diversity conference in Washington, D.C. last week, King emphasized that racially and socioeconomically integrated schools benefit students academically and personally and promote the American ideal of equal opportunity.
King also suggested that the department might promote integration as one way to narrow achievement gaps and revamp low-performing schools — an approach that advocates faulted Duncan for doing little to advance.
In an interview with Chalkbeat after the speech, King said that integration is a school turnaround strategy that “has a long history and substantial evidence” of effectiveness, adding that the department is seeking to highlight examples of districts that have successfully pursued integration. One of his last actions as New York’s education chief was to launch a pilot program that used federal school-improvement money to fund socioeconomic integration measures at high-poverty schools.
“Schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country,” King said in his speech, adding that the country has “much, much more to do” to ensure that all students receive strong educations regardless of their background.
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written extensively about socioeconomic school integration, said King had already taken a “strikingly different” approach from Duncan by suggesting that integration could be a tool for school turnaround. He said King could sway districts to take steps on integration even with relatively minor incentive programs, adding that the Obama administration has been willing to roll out significant new initiatives in other policy areas despite its lame-duck status.
He also said the climate is ripe for equity-focused education efforts following the recent unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., which have sparked national conversations about racial and economic inequality.
“The moment is right,” he said. “I’ve been writing about school segregation for a couple of decades, and I’ve never seen as much interest in it as in recent months.”
King’s attention to diversity issues is longstanding. As New York’s education chief, he clashed with New York City administrators over the importance of not concentrating high-needs students at low-performing schools. More recently, Kathryn McDermott, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that after she wrote a research paper criticizing the Technical Assistance for Student Assignment Plans, a little-known diversity initiative funded by the Obama administration, King responded personally.
Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said Duncan had already begun to shed his “mixed record” on school equity with a move this week to tackle the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Saying that he would instead like to see a “prison-to-school pipeline,” Duncan announced an initiative to keep students out of the criminal justice system and redirecting spending from prisons to teachers. Schools refer 250,000 students — mostly boys of color or students with disabilities — to the police each year.
“That might ultimately be one of the most important things that he’s done,” Parker said.
King, who was New York’s first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner, oversaw the state’s education department during a period of sweeping policy changes. After winning $700 million in federal Race to the Top grants, King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch moved quickly to change how teachers are evaluated and adopt the tougher Common Core learning standards.
The Common Core rollout triggered a backlash from parents and educators who said the changes came too quickly, leaving little time for teachers to be retrained or classroom materials to be updated. King pushed to introduce new tests aligned to the higher standards in the same year that those tests factored into a teacher’s evaluation for the first time. His reluctance to slow down those changes caused years of turbulence and divisiveness that have continued well beyond his tenure.
News of Duncan’s departure Friday drew mostly positive reactions from education groups in New York, though they were more split over reports that King would replace him.
While noting the union’s “major differences with Arne Duncan’s policies,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew recalled some areas of agreement.
Duncan “supported our schools when they were devastated by Superstorm Sandy,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “As Secretary, he understood the value of Career and Technical Education and was a tireless advocate for it across the country.”
New York’s teachers unions had a more contentious relationship with King, a history that Mulgrew made clear is not forgotten.
“King’s obsession with high-stakes testing took education in the wrong direction, and that error was compounded by the state’s disastrous roll out of the Common Core,” Mulgrew said, adding that he hoped for “improvement.”
StudentsFirstNY, a group established as a political counterweight to the teachers unions, called King their “hometown hero and friend.”
“He will bring an intellectual rigor, exceedingly high standards, and a clear vision for improving schools for all children,” StudentsFirstNY’s Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement.