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The 3 most important things to know about John King, the next education secretary

John King, the former top education leader in New York, will take over for Arne Duncan at the Education Department.
John King, the former top education leader in New York, will take over for Arne Duncan at the Education Department.
Michael Sisak/Associated Press
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

John King Jr., the Education Department official who's been picked to succeed Arne Duncan as education secretary, is no stranger to the kinds of battles Duncan has spent seven years fighting.

Before King worked for the federal Education Department, he was New York's top state education official. And in that job, he was known for being at the center of an unprecedented amount of controversy, particularly over how the state was changing its education system in ways that Duncan wanted.

Duncan, who steps down January 1, spent seven years as the most powerful supporter of the education reform movement in the US. Choosing King to succeed him sends a message that the Obama administration isn't backing off its K-12 reform plans.

Here are three things you should know about King.

1) He's the founder of a successful charter school chain

Unlike Duncan, King has been a classroom teacher: He taught for three years, two of them in a charter school, after getting his master's degree in teaching from Columbia University. In 1999, he became co-director of Roxbury Prep, a Boston charter school renowned for getting high test scores despite serving an exclusively low-income black and Latino student body. King, the New York Times wrote in 2011, was instrumental in designing the charter school's curriculum and disciplinary structure — including required school uniforms and rules against talking in the hallways.

King then co-founded Uncommon Schools, an organization that manages charter schools with a similar philosophy to Roxbury Prep (which is now a part of Uncommon's network of 44 schools). While nationally charter schools have a mixed record, some urban charter school networks are very effective, and Uncommon Schools is among them: A 2013 study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that attending one of its schools essentially closes the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

King has a moving story about why he went into education — his parents both died before he was 12, and he's spoken to the press more than once about how school became a refuge for him. New York's public schools "quite literally saved my life," he told the New York Times in 2011, when he became the state's top education official.

2) His policies in New York were in line with Duncan's ideas — and incredibly controversial

As New York's top education official, a job he held from 2011 through 2014, King was responsible for overseeing two huge changes to the state's education system: a shift to the new, more difficult Common Core standards in reading and math, and a change to how teachers are evaluated that included student test scores among the factors considered.

His time as New York's education commissioner exemplifies both what Arne Duncan was trying to do as federal education secretary and why it encountered so much pushback.

Both of these were policies the Obama administration promoted. Duncan used two methods — competitive grants and waivers from some penalties under No Child Left Behind — to encourage states to adopt the Common Core and change how their teachers were evaluated. But in New York, the combination of both changes at once provoked protest: At the same time as students' test scores were going down due to newer, more difficult tests, teachers had more than ever riding on the results.

That's why, although controversy around Common Core was more common in red states, the new standards became the subject of public outcry in New York. King went on a listening tour after the results for the new Common Core tests came out, and was shouted down by crowds in Poughkeepsie.

The state also saw an unprecedented wave of students opting out of standardized tests this year: nearly one in five didn't take the required state reading and math exams. The year before, 95 percent of students took the tests. The opt-out movement was particularly strong in wealthier, whiter suburban areas; civil rights groups generally remain strong supporters of standardized testing.

King stepped down in December 2014 to become an adviser at the federal Education Department.

3) He's really clashed with teachers unions

It might seem hard to believe now, but when Arne Duncan took office back in 2009, he was seen as a compromise between the preferences of teachers unions, which are longtime Democratic allies, and the most hardcore education reformers, such as DC schools chief Michelle Rhee. Duncan had a reputation for getting along with unions in Chicago, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, offered (slightly tepid) praise for him as someone who was capable of working cooperatively.

King, on the other hand, fought battles with teachers unions while in office. The state union president had agreed to the new teacher evaluation policy — which led to his ouster, the first of a sitting state union president in 42 years.

When King initially left New York for the federal Department of Education, Weingarten criticized his "misplaced focus on the high-stakes consequences of Common Core testing."

"For the rest of the nation, hopefully John King — whose heart is in the right place — has learned from his mistakes and, for the last two years of this administration, will advise that to embed policy, you must deeply work with those on the front lines," she wrote.

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