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John King Quizzed on Charters, Teachers, Spending at House Budget Hearing

Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. got asked about a variety of issues during the House Education and the Workforce Committee's Wednesday hearing on the U.S. Department of Education's budget request for fiscal 2017, from charter schools to open educational resources.

King, whose own confirmation hearing will take place in the Senate education commitee on Thursday, was also quizzed about ways his department wants to improve the teaching profession and increase the diversity of the teaching workforce through its requested budget. And he was put on the hot seat by Republicans on the committee who expressed concerns about the new programs in the department's request. 

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Unveiled earlier this month, the proposed fiscal 2017 budget for the Education Department prioritizes racial integration efforts, but would flat-fund several programs such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (It does request $450 million in new Title I funds for disadvantaged students, but it's not truly "new" money, as my co-blogger Alyson Klein has explained.) It would also seek to significantly expand preschool and scale up promising educational practices at the local level. 

Overall, the request seeks $69.4 billion in discretionary funding, or a 1.9 percent increase. Generally speaking, President Barack Obama's budget request faces very long odds in Congress.

King told lawmakers that the budget puts a priority on equity, the teaching profession, and completion rates in higher education. Citing record-high graduation rates and falling dropout rates, King also told lawmakers that the budget "builds on that progress in important ways."

But several GOP representatives, including Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the committee chairman, were unimpressed by key aspects of the budget. Kline, for example, said he was unhappy that the request does not focus more attention on traditional funding streams like the IDEA

"My concern is that the budget is full of new programs," Kline told King. 

Hot Seat on Spending

Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the committee's K-12 subcommittee, also aggressively questioned King about the wisdom of the spending proposal, which he said would contribute to the long-term rise in budget deficits.

Rokita, who attributed $127 billion in new mandatory spending in the request to the "Preschool for All" initiative and "America's College Promise," pointedly asked King if had actually been involved with developing the spending request, given his recent elevation to acting secretary. King replied that he had been involved.

"We were careful to stay within the constraints of the budget caps that were agreed to last year," King said earlier in the hearing.

And Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee's ranking Democrat, took King's side when it came to the budget request's overall size, stating it was proof that, "We can increase the amount we spend on education in a responsible way without running higher deficits."

King was in more of a comfort zone when discussing teacher policy with Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., who said she was concerned about the diversity of the teaching workforce as well as the way the teaching profession is perceived.

When Davis cited, for example, teachers' concerns that leadership or advancement programs might take them out of their classrooms, King highlighted the $1 billion "RESPECT: Best Job in the World" competitive-grant program proposed earlier this month, which would fund teacher-advancement opportunities, efforts to improve teaching conditions, and make teacher professional development more flexibile, among other initiatives. (The "RESPECT" proposal is part of the department's fiscal 2017 budget request.)

"I am very worried about the ways in which the [tone of conversations] around teaching in the last decade has led folks to feel blamed or attacked," King told Davis.

He also noted his concern that only 2 percent of the teaching workforce is comprised of black men, and told Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida that attracting more diverse leaders into education is a "hugely important" issue. And speaking of the budget request's "Stronger Together" school integration initiative, King said, "We want our schools to be places where students experience the kind of diversity that they will experience in the workforce."

However, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., expressed general skepticism about competitive-grant programs, stating that in many cases they put smaller districts at a disadvantage when it comes to generating grant proposals.

Charter Accountability Highlighted

The acting secretary got several questions related to charters. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., asked King how the department planned to step up accountability measures for charters. 

King said his department was mainly focused on ensuring charter school authorizers were more vigorous in their oversight efforts, telling Grijalva, "There are places where authorizers should be doing a much better job." But he also noted that several issues around authorizers and accountability are ultimately a matter of state law.

The budget request seeks a $17 million increase for the department's charter school program, bringing it up to $350 million—there have been problems regarding charter accountability in states like Ohio, as Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio also noted during the hearing. And last September, the Education Department awarded Ohio new charter school grant money despite recent evidence that charter students there, on average, learned less in a year than their peers in traditional public schools. 

King took the time to stress that while he views charter schools as a key part of promoting innovation in education, ultimately they were also responsible for contributing to strong academic outcomes for students. 

But King got a charter school-related shout-out from Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., who praised the department's response to concerns he and Rokita raised last year about the distribution of Title I funds to charters in the Hoosier State. King told Messer that his department was continuing conversations about the issue with the Indiana education department.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., is a fan of charters, but instead focused his attention on open educational resources. King said in response, "We think there's a huge opportunity for savings and sharing" in K-12 and higher education. In fact , the new Every Student Succeeds Act provides significant support to open educational resources by allowing block grant funding to be used on such resources. 

Several members also asked about career and technical education. King highlighted the budget's inclusion of $80 million for the "next generation" high school program that focuses on technology as a way to flesh out CTE programs. (This high school program has been included in past budgets, but hasn't made it across the finish line.)

"We see the next generation high school program as an opportunity to spur that innovation," King said.

Photo: Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, center standing, speaks during a roundtable discussion with lawmakers and local leaders in January in El Paso, Texas.--Victor Calzada /The El Paso Times via AP-File


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