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KING FOR A DAY: Acting Education Secretary Shares Personal Passion for Education, Thoughts on ESSA Implementation During Senate Education Committee Confirmation Hearing

“... School was my refuge, and teachers were my saviors,” King said.

If his February 25 confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee, which was called “collegial” by the Washington Post and Education Week, is any indication, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King should receive a favorable recommendation when the committee meets to vote on his nomination on March 9. After that vote occurs, it is uncertain when the full Senate will consider King’s confirmation.

At the start of the hearing, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said that he urged President Obama to officially nominate King for the position of education secretary—rather than having him remain “active” secretary—when he and other members of Congress went to the White House for the December 10 signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“I did that because this is such an important year for our nation’s schools,” Alexander said. “We need an education secretary who is confirmed and accountable to Congress while we’re implementing a law that may govern elementary and secondary education for years to come. I want to be sure that we are working together to implement the law as Congress wrote it.”

It was that notion of congressional intent around ESSA that Alexander came back to several times during the hearing. He stressed that ESSA restores the responsibility for students’ success to states, school districts, and classroom teachers and “reverses the trend toward … a national school board” in which governors, under NCLB waivers, were “forced to go to Washington and play ‘Mother, May I’ in order to put in a plan to evaluate teachers or help a low-performing school.”

Alexander called ESSA an “important change in direction,” “excellent policy,” and something that should provide a “much-needed period of stability for federal policy in schools for several years,” but he cautioned that the law is “not worth the paper it is printed on unless it is implemented the way Congress wrote it.”

During his testimony, King agreed with the shift toward local control, adding, “as a former teacher, principal, and state commissioner, I know from personal experience that the best ideas come from classrooms not from conference rooms.” At the same time, however, King noted that ESSA “preserves the critical federal role to ensure guardrails to protect civil rights.”

Throughout his testimony, King kept a laser-like focus on the issue of equity that was informed by his professional and personal experiences.

King presented himself as proof that education is the “difference between hope and despair and between life and death.” The son of two life-long New York City public educators, King lost his mother to a heart attack when he was eight and his father just four years later.

“Amidst that trauma and uncertainty, school was my refuge, and teachers were my saviors,” King said. “And it’s because there are so many young people out there like me that I feel such urgency about the work of education.”

King outlined several “meaningful, positive steps” that the U.S. education system has made, including achieving the highest high school graduation rate ever, cutting the number of “dropout factory” high schools in half, granting tens of thousands of children access to high-quality preschool, and providing millions more students with access to higher education. He also listed areas where more work remains.

“For all our progress, students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities, still lag behind their peers and nearly every important measure of school achievement,” King said. “And in far too many schools, we still offer them less—less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses, less access to the resources necessary to thrive.”

King was pressed by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing on how he would protect these subgroups of students under a law that grants states a great deal of flexibility to create their own accountability systems and interventions associated with them. King responded that states “have an opportunity to use their flexibility around interventions to increase equity … but [that] it will also be important for the department to be vigilant after that first set of interventions is put in place …. If they aren’t working, if they aren’t closing achievement gaps, if they aren’t raising graduation rates…states [need] to intensify those interventions.” King added that the U.S. Department of Education would be “very careful” in its work to issue regulations, guidance, and technical assistance in this area, which would be guided by feedback from stakeholders.

King received praise from senators throughout the hearing. Alexander noted that he had “seen [the U.S.] education system from nearly every angle” as a public school student, teacher, charter school founder, education commission in New York, and father. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the committee’s top Democrat, said King has “spent his career fighting on behalf of students so they get the chance to learn, grow, and thrive in the classroom and beyond. No one can question his passion for our nation’s young people.”

Video of the Senate HELP Committee’s hearing on the nomination of Dr. John King to serve as secretary of education is available at

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