Three things to know about new-ish U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate confirmed John King Jr. as secretary of education. He will be schools chief only until President Obama leaves office in January.
On Monday, the U.S. Senate confirmed John King Jr. as secretary of education. He will be schools chief only until President Obama leaves office in January.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

It’s official: John King Jr. isn’t acting anymore. On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted 49 to 40 to confirm him as President Obama’s second and final secretary of education.

Obama’s first education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced he would leave the post in October. Obama chose King, then Duncan's deputy and advisor, to succeed him. At the time, the administration had no plans to seek his confirmation. 

But amid the outcry by some Republicans that an unconfirmed cabinet member was an unaccountable one, the White House changed course and put forth the nomination.

“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,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Senate education committee, said in a statement Monday following the confirmation vote.

Even though King is going to be schools chief only until Obama leaves office in January, he has a long road ahead, and a full plate.

In its final act of major significance, the Department of Education must regulate the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bipartisan replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, the country's sweeping education law. The details here are key, and have far-reaching implications for states. 

In California, the major question will be whether states can grade schools without assigning them an overall number — the State Board of Education is hoping that states can get away with giving parents and taxpayers a suite of different metrics without boiling them all down to one number. The law requires the state to intervene in the lowest-performing one-third of schools, among others, and the feds will likely have to draw a line in the sand as to whether these schools can be identified without a definitive ranking of how well they’re doing.

New York City public school teachers are the reason I'm alive,

— Secretary of Education John King

Obama was pleased with King's confirmation. “John will continue to lead our efforts to work toward high-quality preschool for all, prepare our kids for college and a career, make college more affordable, and protect Americans from the burdens of student debt,” he said in a statement Monday. “John knows how education can transform a child’s future. He’s seen it in his own life.”

Who is John King? We reported on his life story — and his meeting with former gang members in Los Angeles — when he was first announced as acting secretary of education, back in October. Here are some excerpts. 

1. King had a long road to the administration, and looks unlike any other previous education secretary.

“I grew up in Brooklyn,” said King, who is African American and Puerto Rican. “I lost my mom when I was 8, my dad when I was 12. My dad was very sick before he passed.”

As a kid, King said, he was passed around from family member to family member. “New York City public school teachers are the reason I’m alive,” he said. They “gave me hope, hope about what is possible.” ...

His education career began with his teaching high school social studies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Boston. He became a principal in Brooklyn, founded Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Massachusetts, and ultimately served as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, an organization that managed a chain of charter schools in three states. He wound up as a senior deputy commissioner, working under New York state schools chief David Steiner. 

2. He faced intense criticism during his stint as New York’s commissioner of education

King presided over New York’s implementation of the Common Core standards, which coincided with the state’s new teacher evaluations. During the process, parents revolted at town hall meetings, screaming at him and calling him names.…

Even after the toughest of those conversations, though, [former New York Board of Regents Chair Merryl] Tisch said, King was eager to hear feedback. Though she said the meetings took a physical toll on him, “he handled the pressure extraordinarily well.” Tisch said King never complained about the meetings. “I never saw him blow up, I never saw him get frustrated,” she said. 

But his straits continued to worsen. In April 2014, the New York State United Teachers voted “no confidence” in King and called for him to resign. ...

King left his New York position in December 2014 to work for Duncan.

3. King visited Los Angeles this summer to hang out with some former gang members

He met a woman named Mariana Ruiz, whose path to college was far from typical. She was nervous to meet this “wonderful man who looked really clean cut.”  …

King had been dispatched to Los Angeles by the federal government for a number of reasons, including to talk to Homeboy Industries about My Brother’s Keeper. The program is a White House initiative designed to help level the playing field for young men of color. At Homeboy, a Los Angeles organization founded to help former and prospective gang members get back on their feet, people went around the room and talked about their experiences with the criminal justice and education systems.

King mostly asked questions and listened. “We have to focus on successful reentry [into society from prisons], like Homeboy, nationwide,” he said....

As Ruiz spoke, she said, King listened. “He was very open-minded to us. He was very compassionate,” she said. “Not a lot of people are open to people like us. We get a lot of negative reactions.”