John B. King Jr., who served as education secretary during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, has a new job: He will become the new president and chief executive of the Education Trust, an organization that advocates for vulnerable students and supports many of the education policies embraced by the Obama administration.
“The driving mission behind all my work in education has been a commitment to ensure educational opportunity for the students who are most vulnerable,” said King, who has frequently said that New York public school teachers “saved his life” by turning school into a refuge after his parents died when he was young.
The new position gives King a platform to advocate for the needs of disadvantaged children in the states that gained new authority over schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which followed No Child Left Behind.
It also means that he will serve as a watchdog of the agency he used to lead. The Education Trust is among many advocacy groups that are concerned that the Trump administration’s states’ rights approach will mean lax enforcement of civil rights in public schools, a fear stoked by President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
During her confirmation hearing last month, DeVos passed up a chance to reassure senators that she would not seek to scale back the Education Department’s civil rights work, and she declined to commit to enforcing new regulations meant to hold schools accountable for serving all children. She also suggested states should decide whether to enforce a landmark 1975 federal law that protects students with disabilities and then later said she was “confused about the law.”
The Education Trust opposes DeVos’s nomination.
“It’s not clear that she is fully committed to the civil rights responsibilities of the department, and it’s also not clear she’s committed to the critical federal role in ensuring that states and districts use their flexibility under ESSA to ensure opportunities for the students who are most vulnerable,” King said.
“That said, as a former secretary, I am hopeful if Ms. DeVos is confirmed, that she will ultimately champion the civil rights mission of the department.”
King said he has spoken to DeVos and conveyed to her the message he tries to deliver in every setting: The department has a critical role in protecting civil rights, advancing equity and supporting educators. “That’s been the role,” he said. “Certainly that’s not partisan.”
King will start March 6, replacing Kati Haycock, who founded the Education Trust 25 years ago and is retiring. The organization is based in Washington but has regional offices in New York, Michigan and California.
David V. Britt, chairman of the Education Trust’s board, called King “exactly the right leader” to extend and expand the organization’s work.
Janet Murguía, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, an organization that advocates for Latino civil rights, also cheered King’s appointment, calling him a “fearless champion for the country’s children, especially our most vulnerable kids.”
King is a career educator who founded and led charter schools in Boston. He served as New York’s commissioner of education before joining the U.S. Education Department in 2014. He became education secretary in 2016, after his predecessor, Arne Duncan, stepped down.
The Education Trust promotes strong accountability measures for schools and was a forceful voice in pushing to maintain annual testing and test-participation requirements in the new federal education law. It also advocates for high academic standards in K-12 schools and more equitable funding for public schools.
The organization also works on higher-education issues, including improving college access and completion rates, especially among low-income students and students of color.