There is a new education secretary after the Senate confirmed acting Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. by a bipartisan vote of 49 to 40 on Monday, March 14, 2016. King will lead the Department of Education in President Barack Obama’s last year in office and be in charge of implementing the new K-12 education law Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The bipartisan vote is a rarity in the Republican-run Senate, which refuses to consider even a Supreme Court nominee.
Among the 49 Senators voting for King, eight were Republican, which included Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the remaining Senator were Democrats. Except one Senator New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, the remaining Senators voting against King were all Republicans. Eleven Senators abstained including two Democrats.
The Senate’s confirmation comes only five days after the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved King’s nomination with a vote of 16 to 6. The media is seeing this quick confirmation a sharp contrast to the Senate Republican complete opposition to even considering a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month.
In fact, it was the Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn wanted to go through the confirmation with King, he did not want the whole year to go by with an Education Secretary in the post, especially with the education law ESSA being prepared for implementation. Alexander held the same position during Republican President George H. W. Bush’s administration (1989-1993).
President Obama appointed King as acting Secretary last October 2015 to begin in January 2016, after Obama’s original Education Secretary Arne Duncan decided to step down. King, 41 has a doctorate in education, and is a “former teacher, principal and charter-school founder.” King’s most controversial position was his role as New York State Education Commissioner from 2011 until 2014, where he made enemies with teachers and angered parents as he pushed for teacher evaluations and the implementation of Common Core standards and tests.
In February, two months, after Congress passed the ESSA in December, Alexander persuaded Obama to nominate King for the position. On Feb. 11 when President Obama chose King, he said, “John knows how education can transform a child’s future. He’s seen it in his own life. And his experience, counsel, and leadership couldn’t be more valuable to me and to our country as we work to open the doors of opportunity to all of America’s children.” Continuing Obama said, “There is nobody better to continue leading our ongoing efforts to work toward preschool for all, prepare our kids so that they are ready for college and career, and make college more affordable.”
Chairman Alexander said he first asked Obama to nominate a replacement at the December bill signing for ESSA. Alexander recounted, “I did that because this is such an important year for our nation’s schools. We need an education secretary who is confirmed and accountable to Congress while we’re implementing a law that may govern elementary and secondary education for some time.”
With that same persuasiveness, Alexander told his colleagues on the Senate floor, “This vote is not about whether one of us would have chosen Dr. King to be the education secretary. Republicans won’t have the privilege of picking an education secretary until we elect the president of the United States. We need a United States Education Secretary confirmed by and accountable to the United States Senate so that the law to fix No Child Left Behind will be implemented the way Congress wrote it.”
Alexander reminded them that there will be “six oversight hearings” to implement the new education law, “A law is not worth the paper it is printed on unless it is implemented the way Congress wrote it.” In addition to ESSA’s implementation, King will also be responsible for the “new rules for for-profit colleges.” Those two elements are essential to President Obama’s education legacy.
After his confirmation Obama expressed in a statement, King “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. John knows how education can transform a child’s future. He’s seen it in his own life. And his experience, counsel, and leadership couldn’t be more valuable to me and to our country as we work to open the doors of opportunity to all of America’s children.”