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Education Secretary John King Focuses on Education, Leadership, and Equity in Final Policy Speech

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December 20, 2016 10:40 am


In his last major policy speech, U.S. Secretary of Education John King delivered what could be seen as a motivational speech for education advocates preparing for President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to expand school choice options for students through a $20 billion voucher program that would allow federal funds to follow students to private schools.

“For all who believe that strong, equitable public education is central to a healthy democracy and a thriving economy, now is the moment for us to set aside the policy differences that we have let divide us, and move forward together courageously to defend and extend this fundamental American institution,” King said on December 14.

King discussed progress over the last eight years, including a high school graduation rate at an all-time high of 83 percent, closing achievement gaps, and the largest and most diverse college graduation class in history. Still, he acknowledged that too many students fail to graduate from high school and those who do are frequently unprepared for the rigors of college.

“Ensuring more Americans get the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in our country matters more than ever,” King said. “It is not enough for those already prosperous to prosper. Unless we are ensuring that all Americans can meaningfully participate in our nation’s growth, our nation will not succeed. The simple fact, confirmed by the research, is that reducing income inequality positively influences economic output. When everyone has a fair chance, whole societies are healthier, better off and more productive.”

King said the Every Student Succeeds Act “rightly empowers state and district leaders to develop strategies that address their unique challenges and needs,” but he cautioned them to maintain “guardrails” for protecting students.

He spoke strongly in support of college- and career-ready standards and urged states to “fight the inevitable efforts” to water down high expectations. King stressed the need for accountability—saying, “Without accountability, standards are meaningless and equity is a charade”—and urged states to develop accountability systems that are “rich and varied” and include “measures such as chronic absenteeism, access to and success in advanced courses, or new approaches to discipline that help students improve their behavior and their academic achievement.”

Looking ahead, King discussed “growing bipartisan consensus” around increased access to preschool and free community college and other options to make high education available to more students without a mountain of debt.

King spoke passionately about equity and funding disparities that exist across the country. “Money is never the only answer, but money does matter,” King said. “It pays for higher salaries and for school counselors. Money builds science labs and repairs leaky roofs. Yet, in districts all across the country, students who need the most still get the least.”

He also encouraged schools to embrace diversity and inclusion and reject segregation. “Diverse schools are great preparation for all students,” King said. “They help more children succeed, help broaden students’ perspectives, and help prepare them to participate in a global workforce. And I am convinced that the growing conflicts in this country over race and religion and language would be profoundly reduced if our children were able to learn and play alongside classmates who were different from themselves and if they regularly encountered teachers and leaders of color in their schools.”

How many of the Obama administration’s education policies will continue into a Trump administration is an open question, but, with his passionate defense of equity and public education, King is betting that his words will remain with people even if some of his policies do not.

A transcript of King’s speech is available at

Jason Amos is vice president of communications at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.