With Senate confirmation of John King as U.S. education secretary, the Obama team has just 10 more months to advance its history-making education reform agenda and set the stage for the next administration. How best to use the time? If it’s up to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the administration will crack down on predatory colleges saddling students with high debt. With over a trillion dollars in debt, young people are entering the work world as indentured servants and will spend a decade or more trying to get out of the red. While the economic consequences of a nation of young debtors are troubling—they won’t be buying homes anytime soon, for example—the solution is less clear. Calls for free higher education from, among others, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have not gained traction and would likely further drive up college costs. If it’s up to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the administration will take a light touch in establishing the rules for implementing the updated federal education law, the
Every Student Succeeds Act. As the architect of the new law and the strategy that got it passed, Alexander will keep a close watch on the department as it decides how to monitor and approve state-designed
accountability systems. The Obama administration’s use of waivers to give flexibility to states with regard to accountability helped shape the new education law, which shifts more responsibility for accountability back to states. While the feds will still play a role in approving state systems of accountability, their power is limited. The challenge is to balance flexibility with oversight. Part of King’s job is also to defend and advance America’s progress around
high standards. In the last six years, all but a handful of states voluntarily chose to raise their standards. Debates are underway in several states to repeal them, while several others have amended them. Just one, Oklahoma, has fully repealed them. Nevertheless, leading candidates for the Republican nomination for president insist that state-developed and state-adopted standards should be repealed by the federal government. The irony of “local-control” Republicans using federal power to deny states the right to set their own standards somehow gets lost in the debate. Secretary King can help separate fact from fiction and amplify the voices of classroom educators who support high standards. As a former teacher, principal and founder of a high-performing charter school, King knows firsthand the power of high expectations to drive achievement. The only real pressure to drive
improvements in education will come from parents, which gets to the education secretary’s most important role in the last year of an administration—the bully pulpit. Driving parent awareness and demand for improving schools is essential in a world where Washington’s power to protect children at risk has been curtailed. When parents unite for needed change, the forces of resistance, whether they be local politicians, school boards, teachers unions, or district superintendents, generally go along. That’s why the charter school movement of the last 25 years has been so successful.
Parents want options and districts have to provide them or parents will vote with their feet and leave. Today, the parents of nearly 10 million school children enroll their kids in private or public charter schools or they home-school. That number is likely to grow as dozens of states pass laws allowing public money to pay for private schools.
Parents also want results and there is a growing awareness among urban, rural and working-class suburban communities that educational outcomes are far from equal. Wealthy communities spend more money, tend to attract more effective teachers and get better results. As a product of New York City public schools, John King embodies the hope and promise of a more equitable education system. His
inspiring personal story—orphaned at 13, rescued by a teacher, multiple degrees and appointment as the top education official in America at the age of 40—is the single-best weapon he has in demonstrating the power of education to change lives. Simply telling his story to as many people as will listen will be a great service to the nation. With an angry electorate frustrated by cynical politics and economic injustice, King’s life offers a measure of hope to people desperate for something to believe in.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with