The Senate voted on Monday to confirm John King Jr. as U.S. Education Secretary, a move that shows that education has become a rare issue on which a polarized Washington can reach bipartisan compromise.
Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting 49 to 40 in favor of King’s confirmation at a time when key GOP senators are refusing to even consider an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — chairman of the education committee who previously served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush — urged his colleagues to confirm King, arguing that the education department needs a leader who can be held to account as the nation implements a sweeping new education law that replaced the long-maligned No Child Left Behind.
“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,” Alexander said Monday, 25 years to the day after his own Senate confirmation. “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.”
King, 41, has been serving as acting secretary since his predecessor Arne Duncan stepped down at the end of 2015. A former teacher, principal and charter-school founder, he led New York’s state education department from 2011 until 2014, when he joined the U.S. Education Department.
President Obama nominated King last month, saying at the time that “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.”
Obama also highlighted King’s powerful personal story: Orphaned at 12, King credits public school teachers in Brooklyn with saving his life and giving him faith in his own potential.
One of King’s main jobs during the next 10 months will be shepherding the implementation of the new education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed into law by Obama in December, it shifts much of the authority over public schools from the federal to states and school districts.
King pledged to uphold the spirit of that shift to local control during his confirmation hearing last month. But he also emphasized that the federal government will continue to have an important role in making sure that states and school districts are adequately serving all children, especially those who are disadvantaged.
Some lawmakers also want to see King move aggressively to improve its oversight of student loan servicers, the contractors who collect student loan payments, to ensure that borrowers are treated fairly. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), criticizing the department for leaving students exposed to fraud and “shady institutions,” said she would vote for King because he had already taken “serious steps” toward an overhaul.
In New York, King became known as one of the most polarizing figures in education, clashing frequently with parents and teachers over his efforts to introduce new policies — including new teacher evaluations and new Common Core standards and tests — that the Obama administration was pushing nationwide.
Those policies spurred a backlash in New York and across the country from a strange-bedfellows alliance of activists from the tea party and teachers unions.
Since taking the helm of the U.S. Education Department in January, King has mollified some critics by apologizing for the federal government’s contribution toward creating an environment in which teachers feel “attacked and unfairly blamed.” But he and the policies he champions still have detractors: Activists on both ends of the political spectrum — from Heritage Action on the right to Noam Chomsky on the left — had urged Senators to reject King’s nomination on Monday.
Senators voting against King included conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who said he opposed King’s confirmation “based on the policies he has supported, the bipartisan criticism he has invited and his uncompromising commitment to the designs of bureaucrats and central planners over the lived experiences of parents and teachers.”
One Democrat also voted against King’s confirmation: Kirsten Gillibrand, who represent’s King’s home state of New York.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was among the Republicans voting in favor of King’s confirmation. See how all Senators cast their votes here.