on the rise

Former N.Y. ed chief John King will replace Arne Duncan as U.S. education secretary

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.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede