What the New Acting Secretary of Education Means for Higher Education

Posted By Derek Johnson on January 14, 2016 at 4:20 pm
What the New Acting Secretary of Education Means for Higher Education
Acting Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr., center, speaks as US President Barack Obama, right, and former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, left, look on. REX Shutterstock, AP Images.

The Department of Education has a new (acting) Secretary of Education in John B. King, Jr. Arne Duncan announced he was stepping down in September of last year, and King’s ascension has been in the works for months. Duncan’s timing leaves his successor in an awkward position. With less than a calendar year left until the Obama Administration leaves office, King likely won’t have enough time to dramatically change any current policy trajectories or put his stamp on the nation’s higher education landscape.

“Education always has been a focal point in my life—both my parents were New York City public school educators. My father was a teacher and a principal. My mother was a teacher and guidance counselor,” said King in an introductory blog post on the Department of Education’s website.

Duncan has cited King’s background and history as a black youth growing up in an unstable family environment, arguing that it gives him a unique perspective on how to reach at-risk students that are at the core of many federal policies and programs.

“He is much more, for better or worse, much more similar to the kids that we want to do better for than I was growing up, and I think that’s a tremendous asset,” said Duncan in an interview to US News in October.

Career Experience in K-12

Before arriving in Washington, King oversaw New York State’s public school system, which includes the Office for Higher Education and the state’s public universities. However, the bulk of his experience is in K-12 policy. Prior serving as commissioner of the New York’s public schools, he was director of a non-profit focused on low-income students and founder of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts.

His tenure in New York has been described as “polarizing” by critics and marked by battles with the state teachers’ unions and with parents over Common Core education standards. In a series of 2013 public forums, parents and educators lambasted King over the way Common Core educational standards were being implemented. Critics complained that the switch to the new standards was rushed and gave teachers and students inadequate time to transition. Some, like Long Island eighth-grade teacher Beth Dimino, called for his resignation, likening the stress and confusion the implementation has caused students to “child abuse.”

“Obviously, Mr. King, you’re ineffective. Seventy percent of the children in this state failed your test,” said Dimino as the forum erupted in cheers.

Higher Ed Focus

Though King has less experience dealing with higher education, he has long championed issues of diversity and closing the achievement gap among African-Americans and Latinos that exist in the higher education world. Officials have stated that these issues are already a part of the department’s focus and will continue to be under King.

“We’re not dialing back on anything, department-wide. The equity focus of the first seven years will continue full speed ahead. John is committed to all students and if anything, we will be adding to it so we can do even more than last year,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in an interview with Think Progress.

King has also singled out college completion as a major issue. The rate of college completion among American college students has stagnated over the past 30 years while other industrialized nations have surpassed them. Non-profit organizations like Complete College America were formed specifically to combat the increasing frequency of students starting college but dropping out or declining to finish. Experts have pointed to research showing that failure to complete college is closely associated with many high-profile, negative trends in higher education, from the student debt crisis and predatory for-profit college industry to the color achievement gap and lower lifetime earnings.

In a public letter laying out his goals as acting secretary, King highlighted the need for policies that encourage more than just access to higher education.

“I want to extend our focus in higher education beyond enrollment to completion, ensuring that more students complete an affordable, high quality degree that will help launch them on the path to a bright future,” King wrote.

By naming King as acting secretary of education (as opposed to nominating him as a permanent replacement), the Obama Administration avoided the need for congressional confirmation. King is expected to serve out the remainder of the year in this capacity.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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