John B. King Jr. is like no previous U.S. secretary of Education: He’s half-black and half-Puerto Rican, and in his (successful) admissions essay to Harvard, he had to explain why he got kicked out of Phillips Academy Andover, the prestigious Massachusetts high school.
King’s mother suffered a fatal heart attack when he was 8; his father developed Alzheimer’s disease and died when he was 12. King was passed off to different relatives, but felt safe in school. His teachers, he’s fond of saying, saved his life.
He earned a scholarship to Andover. But at the elite boarding school, the orphaned boy from Brooklyn rebelled, cut class and got expelled. His childhood left him with “anger and frustration ... with adults,” and it showed.
Still, he felt supported by his teachers, both in and out of the classroom. His aunt and uncle took him in, and he wrote the supplementary college application essay and eventually earned degrees from Harvard, Yale and Columbia.
King was confirmed by the Senate on March 14. Obama’s first Education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced in October that he would leave the post by the of the year. Obama chose King, then Duncan’s deputy and advisor, to serve as acting secretary; the administration had no plans to seek his formal confirmation as secretary.
“Nobody would have thought that was possible three or four months ago,” Duncan said in a recent interview.
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,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, in a statement after 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. The Department of Education must regulate the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bipartisan replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act, the country’s sweeping education law.
That is a key question because the law requires states to intervene in the lowest-performing one-third of schools, among others, and it’s not clear how that would be done without a definitive ranking. King does not yet have an answer to that question, but says he is gathering input from teachers, parents and administrators on the topic.
Still, he’s confident he’ll be able to finish his assignment by deadline. “The president often says to the team, ‘Big things happen in the fourth quarter,’” King said. “That’s exactly right.”
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 served as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, an organization that managed a chain of charter schools in three states.
The president often says to the team, ‘Big things happen in the fourth quarter.’ That’s exactly right.
He then became a New York State senior deputy commissioner, and in 2011, at age 36, rose to education commissioner. He oversaw the implementation of Common Core, a set of learning goals the Obama administration encouraged through the Race to the Top competition.
In New York, the introduction of Common Core coincided with the state’s new teacher evaluations. Common Core was harder, and test scores on new exams aligned with the standards plummeted.
Parents were shocked, and many teachers felt poorly equipped to prepare students for the challenge. Parents revolted at town hall meetings, screaming at King and calling him names.
Those rough meetings stayed with King.
“There are things that we did in New York later … that I wish we’d done earlier,” he said — such as training teachers. And he is still facing the consequences, at least symbolically: The lone Democrat to vote against King’s confirmation was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Gillibrand issued a statement saying she could not vote for King because his “tenure in New York was very adversarial, leaving families, students and teachers without a voice.”
In a visit to Los Angeles last summer, King visited Homeboy Industries to talk about My Brother’s Keeper, a White House initiative designed to help level the playing field for young men of color.
At Homeboy, an organization founded to help former and prospective gang members get back on their feet, people talked about their experiences with the criminal justice and education systems.
King mostly asked questions and listened.
“He was very open-minded to us. He was very compassionate,” said Mariana Ruiz, a 32-year-old former alcohol and methamphetamine addict who dropped out of high school, flirted with gang life, lost custody of her son and served some time in jail.
“Not a lot of people are open to people like us, she said. “We get a lot of negative reactions.”
Months later, King recalled the Homeboy visit as “a concrete reminder about the importance of second chances.”
The administration is piloting a program called Second Chance Pell that gives incarcerated people federal grants for postsecondary education.
It’s not that surprising from a guy who was kicked out of Andover. In a recent speech, King noted that the teachers who sustained him could have said, “There is an African American, Latino student whose family is in crisis. What chance does he have?”
But they didn’t. Instead, he said, they saw hope.