Obama’s pick for Education says teachers saved his life

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President Barack Obama's choice to serve as Education Secretary says he rose to his current position because New York City public school teachers "literally saved my life." Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

John B. King Jr. says he rose to his current position because of two New York City public school teachers, “Mr. Osterweil” and “Miss D.” Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s choice to serve as Education Secretary says he rose to his current position because New York City public school teachers “literally saved my life.”

At his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, John B. King Jr., told the story of his mother’s death when he was eight and his father’s passing four years later. Both were educators.

He cited two of his New York teachers — “Mr. Osterweil” and “Miss D” — for his success. “If not for them, I could not have survived that turbulent period, and I certainly wouldn’t be sitting before you today,” King said.

King, who began his career in education teaching high school social studies, joined the department in January 2015. He oversaw federal education programs for preschool through 12th grade before being tapped by Obama late last year to succeed longtime secretary Arne Duncan, who stepped down in December. King is currently serving as acting secretary.

The committee is considering King’s nomination as lawmakers assess how the government implements a new law covering elementary and secondary education. The legislation passed with strong bipartisan support last year, and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has promised to give King “a prompt and fair” hearing.

“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,” Alexander, who served as education secretary under former President George H.W. Bush, said at the hearing.

Before coming to Washington, King served as commissioner of education for the state of New York, where he pushed an ambitious improvement agenda for the state’s public schools. During his 3 1/2 years as commissioner, King became a lightning rod for criticism over linking student test scores to teacher evaluations and a rushed implementation of the Common Core academic standards for grades K-12. The state’s largest teachers’ union said upon his departure that it had “disagreed sharply and publicly with the commissioner on many issues.”

The bipartisan education law is a makeover of the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, which ushered in a new era of testing and accountability. Under the landmark 2002 law, Washington played a significant role in how schools and teachers were judged and what kinds of sanctions to prescribe for underperformers.

Those days will be gone under the new law. The measure substantially limits the federal government’s influence, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess the performance of schools and teachers. Instead, states and districts must come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide how to turn around struggling schools.

King said the focus of decision-making is “rightly shifting” to states and away from the federal government. “As a former teacher, principal, and state commissioner, I know from personal experience that the best ideas come from classrooms, not conference rooms,” King said.

At the hearing, senators quizzed him on the department’s implementation of the new law, college campus sexual assault and student loans, among other issues.

The Obama administration has taken steps to push colleges to better tackle the problem of sexual assault, including releasing the names of colleges and universities in 2014 that were facing Title IX investigations for their handling of such cases. King said the issue continues to be a priority.

On student loans, critics have complained the government didn’t move swiftly enough to take action against for-profit schools like Corinthian Colleges, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year amid fraud allegations, closing schools and leaving thousands of students with hefty student debt and frustrating their efforts to earn degrees. The Education Department said earlier this month it will create a new student aid enforcement unit to respond more quickly to allegations of illegal actions.

“There’s a lot of work to do to protect our students and borrowers, and we intend to do that,” King said in response to questions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on the issue.

Senate Republicans have stalled many of Obama’s nominees in recent months over various issues. But Alexander has been pressing for the White House to nominate a secretary since Obama signed the new education law. He said he doesn’t think it is appropriate to go a whole year without a secretary firmly in place and at the time pledged to “work to have that person immediately confirmed.”

Associated Press writer Jennifer C. Kerr contributed to this report.

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