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Bipartisan optimism that John King Jr. will be confirmed as Obama’s education secretary

Acting Education Secretary John King Jr. testifies Thursday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

While Washington battles over who should name the next Supreme Court justice, the Senate education committee held a confirmation hearing Thursday afternoon for John King Jr., President Obama’s nominee to serve as education secretary for the administration’s final year.

King faced a number of questions during the two-hour hearing about his vision for implementing the nation’s new federal education law. Senators also asked about his plans to ensure that the department’s trillion-dollar federal student loan program is fair to borrowers and taxpayers; about his plans to fix security weaknesses in databases that hold sensitive personal information of students and loan recipients; and about the Obama administration’s oppositions to vouchers.

But the tone was collegial and there appeared to be bipartisan optimism that King’s confirmation will go smoothly. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the education committee and former education secretary under George H.W. Bush, noted at the start of Tuesday’s hearing that his own confirmation hearing took place 25 years ago this month.

“That hearing lasted four hours. We won’t do that to you today I don’t think,” Alexander said, adding that his nomination languished for months before the Senate finally held a floor vote. “I don’t suspect you’re going to have any of those problems,” he told King.

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In fact, the hearing lasted just more than two hours, and Alexander announced that the committee will meet on March 9 to consider — and presumably vote on — King’s nomination.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), said in her opening remarks that she is confident that King is a strong nominee: “Through his personal background, he knows firsthand the power that education can have in a student’s life.”

King has been leading the Education Department as acting secretary since his predecessor, Arne Duncan, stepped down at the end of 2015. Public schools played an important role in his childhood: Orphaned at 12, King often says that his life was saved by teachers at his Brooklyn public schools, and that’s why he decided to become a teacher, the founder of a charter school and commissioner of education for the state of New York.

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He told that personal story Thursday in his opening statement.

“Amidst that trauma and uncertainty, school was my refuge, and teachers were my saviors,” King said

High school graduation rates are rising and the nation’s schools are on the right trajectory in many ways, King said. But there is still a long way to go to close achievement gaps and bring equity to the nation’s classrooms, he said: “It is because there are so many young people out there like me that I feel such urgency about the work of education.”

Duncan was arguably the nation’s most powerful education secretary, pushing states to adopt the policies he favored with the promise of federal stimulus dollars and relief from No Child Left Behind. King is helming an agency with far less political firepower: Congress last year passed a replacement for No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that shifts authority over the nation’s 100,000 public schools to states and local school districts.

King faced many questions Thursday about whether the Obama administration is committed to carrying out Congress’s vision for a smaller federal role in public education. He repeatedly assured the committee that he believes the law is a good law that allows for a needed “reset” in the public conversation about education, and said he understood that federal officials have no role in pushing states to adopt Common Core standards or particular teacher evaluation policies.

The new law is one reason why it’s particularly important for a secretary to be formally nominated and confirmed, Alexander, the committee chairman, said Thursday. “I want to be sure that we are working together to implement the law as Congress wrote it,” Alexander said.

Alexander asked specifically whether King would commit to allowing states and local districts to decide how to intervene in and improve low-performing schools. King said he plans to “adhere to the letter of the law,” but said that there have to be parameters to ensure that when local interventions aren’t working, “we all remain vigilant” and ensure that districts intensify or change their efforts.

Alexander reminded King that senators had already had a spirited debate about this issue — and that an effort to give the federal government more authority to shape school-improvement decisions had lost.

School choice proponent Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) applauded King for his previous work in charter schools, and Scott asked King to explain why he did not support a federally funded D.C. voucher program, pointing to higher graduation rates among voucher recipients than among traditional public school students. King said he believes that vouchers are not a “scalable solution to the equity and excellence challenge in public schools.”

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) asked King what he would do about vulnerabilities in department databases that hold sensitive personal and financial information for more than 40 million student loan borrowers — problems that have persisted even after concerns were raised by the department’s inspector general in 2014.

King called cybersecurity a “top priority” and described efforts that the department has made over the past year to strengthen security.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) urged King to do more to make student loans more fair for borrowers and taxpayers, and to expedite debt forgiveness for students of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges.

King pledged to “work with states” on policies regarding parents opting children out of federally mandated tests, and — in response to concerns raised by several senators from states with large rural areas — said he would work to ensure that far-flung communities are considered and included in education policy.