Obama's choice to lead U.S. schools says states must play a bigger part
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama nominated John B. King Jr. to be the new secretary of education. The secretary's job is to lead the federal government's Education Department and work with President Obama. Before he can take the job, King needs the Senate's approval. Last week, King spoke to some senators. He said that the decision-making on elementary and secondary education is "rightly shifting" to the states and away from the federal government.
King is poised to oversee the Education Department as it is losing some of its authority. A new education law was passed by Congress and signed by Obama in December. It rewrites the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, which was an education law passed in 2002. No Child Left Behind gave the federal government a lot of power about education. The new law substantially limits some of the federal government's voice in education. It does not allow the Education Department to tell states and local school districts how to check on the performance of schools and teachers. Instead, states and districts must come up with their own goals for schools and design their own measures of achievement and progress. Then, they must decide how to turn around struggling schools.
Before Obama selected him, King was a teacher, a principal, and the head of education in New York. "I know from personal experience that the best ideas come from classrooms, not conference rooms," King said.
Senators Ask Him Many Questions
Last week, the senators at a hearing asked him many questions. King promised that his department will follow the new law and its limits on federal intervention.
King began his career in education teaching high school social studies. He joined the department in January 2015, and oversaw federal education programs for preschool through 12th grade. Late last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stepped down. King is currently serving as acting secretary, but Obama wants him to take the job officially.
The current Senate rarely supports Obama, but it looks like they might approve of King.
Lamar Alexander is a senator from Tennessee and a committee chairman, and he served as education secretary under former President George H.W. Bush. Alexander does not usually agree with Obama, but he pressed for a new secretary after the new education law was signed. He said he didn't think it was appropriate to go a whole year without a secretary firmly in place.
Education Chief Must Manage New Law
Alexander said that it is important to have an education secretary who is confirmed and respected by Congress. He said this is especially important with a new law "that may govern elementary and secondary education for some time."
After the hearing, Alexander said he thought King was "well received" by the Senate committee. "I think his prospects are excellent," he said.
In addition to the new law, senators also quizzed King on other school-related issues like student loans, among others.
On loans, some have complained the government didn't move swiftly enough to take action against for-profit schools. Corinthian Colleges, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year, closed their schools. This left thousands of students with big student debts and frustrated their efforts to earn degrees. The Education Department said earlier this month it will create a new student aid enforcement unit to respond to problems more quickly.
"There's a lot of work to do to protect our students and borrowers, and we intend to do that," King said.
He Worked To Improve New York Schools
Before coming to Washington, King served as commissioner of education for the state of New York. He pushed a strong improvement agenda for the state's public schools. King was criticized for linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. Some complained that he rushed the Common Core academic standards for grades K-12. The state's largest teachers' union was not happy. Upon his departure, it said that it had "disagreed sharply and publicly with the commissioner on many issues."
King told the senators that his New York City public school teachers "literally saved my life." He told the story of his mother's death when he was 8 years old and his father's passing four years later. Both were educators.
He cited two of his New York teachers — "Mr. Osterweil" and "Miss D" — for his success. "If not for them ... I certainly wouldn't be sitting before you today," King said.