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John King Talks ESSA, Priorities for 2016, and Being an 'Acting' Education Secretary


Silver Spring, Md.

John King, the newly minted acting education secretary, dropped by Joanne Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres in Montgomery County, Md., to welcome students back from the holiday break, highlight the school's use of new federal money for preschool—and chat with reporters.

King, who replaced recently-departed education Secretary Arne Duncan, outlined his top three priorities for his single year in office:IMG_1056.JPG

 "One is to focus on equity and excellence in all of our schools. Two is to lift up teaching," King said. He said he's the product of New York City public schools and that teachers helped get him to the place he's in today.

And he had one higher education goal: "We need to focus as a country on getting back to first in the world in college completion," which will mean making sure students graduate from high school ready for the challenges of post-secondary education. (King also outlined these same three areas in a letter to U.S. Department of Education staff earlier this week, and we wrote about them here.)

King doesn't think the newest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will have a big impact on whether or not he's able to move forward with that agenda.

"The president signed the Every Student Succeeds Act because he believes and we believe that it builds on the civil rights legacy of the law. We are confident we can work together with states and ensure that implementation of the new law advances equity and excellence in our schools. The key will be to make sure states use their new flexibility around accountability and intervention systems in ways that are [focused] on equity and opportunity for the highest-need students," he said.

King held up Montgomery County—just outside Washington, D.C.—as an example of a district that's doing a good job of meeting the needs of a diverse population. (Incidentally, King is a Montgomery County parent. His daughters—a 4th grader and a 7th grader—attend school in the district.)

Does it matter that King is "acting"?  Some GOP aides on Capitol Hill have raised eyebrows behind the scenes about the fact that King was never put up for Senate confirmation—either for his current gig or for his previous post as a senior aide filling the role of deputy secretary, the No. 2 job at the department. But so far, no lawmakers have publicly grumbled about the move.

UPDATE: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee and a key author of ESSA, would really like to get an official nominee, he said in a statement Tuesday. "I hope the administration will nominate someone to serve as Secretary of Education because it's important that the agency is run by someone the Senate has confirmed to increase confidence in the department's efforts to implement the law."

And Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the House education chairman, also would like to see a secretary with Senate confirmation. "The American people would be well served if they had an education secretary who was vetted and confirmed by the United States Senate, especially as the department begins implementing the new K-12 education law," he said. "We will continue to stay in close contact with the department to ensure all federal laws are being implemented as Congress intended."

So does King think the "acting" in front his title will hurt his efforts? Doesn't sound like it.

That's "a decision for the president to make," King said. "I will say that the authorities of the acting secretary are the same as the authorities of the secretary."

Incidentally, there are a lot of senior aides at the department filling key roles when it comes to implementation of ESSA—Ann Whalen, a senior aide is taking on the duties of the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, and Amy McIntosh, another senior aide, basically has the job of assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy.

Mike Smith, who has worked on education policy for five different presidents (including President Barack Obama) doesn't see so many "acting" folks as a big deal." It's par for the course at the end of an administration, he said.

On the more fun side: King also read Snowmen at Night to a group of prekindergarten students at the event (and he was surprised that not all of them had seen "Frozen"). One child asked King if he was the president. King said no, but that he worked for  the president, and he's "nice." 

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