The Senate confirmed John King, Jr. as education secretary, promoting the former teacher and New York education commissioner from acting secretary to cabinet official. King will be responsible for implementation of the newly minted K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
By a vote of 49 to 40, the Senate on Monday confirmed John King, Jr. as Secretary of Education. King filled in as acting secretary when the previous education secretary Arne Duncan retired at the end of 2015. At first, President Obama said King would serve in an acting capacity through the rest of his presidency, but key senators insisted on a proper nomination and confirmation process for the cabinet-level position. In a nod to their concerns, Obama formally nominated King as secretary on Feb. 11.
In a statement following King’s confirmation, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who served as education secretary himself under President George H.W. Bush, explained that his insistence on Senate confirmation for King is about accountability:
We need an education secretary confirmed by and accountable to the United States Senate so that the law fixing No Child Left Behind will be implemented the way Congress wrote it.
Alexander chaired King’s nomination hearing on Feb. 25, and the committee reported the nomination to the full Senate by a vote of 16 to 6 on Mar. 9. At the time, Alexander added:
I don’t agree with all of Dr. King’s views, but the president did what I urged him to do. I promised we would have a prompt and fair consideration. We’ve done that. I’m going to vote to move his confirmation to the floor and hope the Senate confirms him promptly.
King charged with implementing Every Student Succeeds Act
Implementing and regulating the new K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), will be King’s primary responsibility as secretary, and most of the questions senators asked during the confirmation process revolved around various aspects of the law’s implementation. Several sections of ESSA aim to strengthen K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Although the senators focused on matters other than STEM education during confirmation proceedings, King will nonetheless oversee some of the largest sources of federal funding for STEM education at the nation’s K-12 public schools.
In particular, as the cabinet-level official responsible for carrying out ESSA, King will be in charge of two major programs of federal grants to the states: one for teacher training and preparation (ESSA’s Title IIA) and another for school improvement and well-rounded educational opportunities for students (ESSA’s Title IV). Altogether the two grant programs are authorized in ESSA at a level of $4.7 billion annually, although this is likely the high end of what Congress will actually choose to appropriate each year. States have flexibility under the law to apply the grant funding to a number of areas, among them improving access to and the quality of STEM education as well as the creation of STEM-focused specialty schools.
ESSA also establishes a new STEM Master Teacher Corps, “a state-led effort to elevate the status of the STEM teaching profession by recognizing, rewarding, attracting, and retaining outstanding STEM teachers, particularly in high-need and rural schools.” The President requested $10 million for the STEM Master Teacher Corps in his fiscal year 2017 budget request, and King will oversee the formation of this small but significant new program.
King rolling out initiatives to reduce inequities in STEM education
During his tenure at the Department of Education, King has focused on carrying out the president’s goal of promoting greater equity in the nation’s public education system. During his Feb. 25 testimony to the Senate HELP Committee, King conveyed this philosophy with respect to the new ESSA law:
[ESSA] maintains the principle that, when groups of students or entire schools are falling behind, action will be taken to provide the supports necessary to foster progress. And it creates the opportunity to reclaim the goal of a well-rounded education for all students: an education that not only includes strong numeracy and literacy but access to science, social studies, the arts, physical education and health, and the opportunity to learn a second or third language.
In this spirit, King launched an “Opportunity Across America” tour of high schools in January and February and has begun a “College Opportunity Across America Tour” in March. On Wednesday, as a part of the tour, King visited Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Ala., where he praised the historically black university for its collaborative work in STEM alongside NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. He also took the opportunity to laud NASA engineer, Alabama A&M alum, and the first African-American woman in Alabama to earn her Ph.D. in physics, Sheila Nash-Stevenson.
During his final State of the Union address in January, Obama highlighted STEM among his top priorities for the nation:
The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve…boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by…offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.
In working to bring the president’s vision to life, King will play a leadership role in the STEM for All and Computer Science for All initiatives. Last September, King elaborated on his views about the Department of Education’s role in addressing inequities in access to STEM education in the U.S. When asked by the moderator of a panel what grade the nation’s K-12 public schools should be getting in STEM education, King responded:
I think the challenge is there are really two grades. There are places where we should get an A and there are places where we should get more like a D, frankly. The places where we should get an A, we have lots of schools around the country that are doing a fantastic job preparing students who go on to higher education and excel in STEM fields…. On the other hand, we have schools that don’t have that. A quarter of the schools that have the largest number of African American and Latino students don’t even offer Algebra 2. About a third of them don’t even offer chemistry.
In a statement, Obama commended the Senate’s confirmation of King:
I applaud the Senate for confirming John King as Secretary of Education. … John knows how education can transform a child’s future. He’s seen it in his own life. And his experience, counsel, and leadership couldn’t be more valuable to me and to our country as we work to open the doors of opportunity to all of America’s children.