5 Things Colleges Should Know About the New Secretary of Education

October 05, 2015

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Arne Duncan, the departing secretary of education, has praised John B. King, his successor (above), for his “passion, his fierce intelligence, and his clear understanding of the difficult but vital work of education change.”
John B. King Jr., who will lead the Education Department through President Obama’s final year in office, isn’t well known in higher-education circles. Like his predecessor, Arne Duncan, who announced on Friday that he would step down in December, Mr. King is most famous (or infamous, depending on whom you’re talking to) for his efforts to remake elementary and secondary education. Here’s what readers need to know about him:

1. He has four degrees from three Ivies.

Growing up, Mr. King hardly seemed destined for the upper echelons of academe. A Brooklyn-born African-American with Puerto Rican heritage, Mr. King lost both his parents by the age of 12 and spent the next several years bouncing between family members and schools. As Mr. Duncan said in introducing Mr. King on Friday, "John was one of those kids that probably shouldn’t be in a room like this, if you look at the stereotypes."

He was kicked out of the prestigious Phillips Academy but accepted into Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor of arts in government. He went on to earn a master of arts in the teaching of social studies from Columbia University’s Teachers College, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and, finally, a doctor of education in educational administrative practice from Columbia. He eventually became New York State’s education commissioner, a post he held from 2011 though 2014, before joining the Education Department as Mr. Duncan’s second-in-command.

2. He has tremendous respect for teachers, but has clashed with teachers’ unions and teacher colleges.

The son of public-school educators, Mr. King credits teachers with saving his life after his parents died. As he said at a news conference on Friday: "Teachers, New York City public-school teachers, are the reason that I’m alive. They are the reason I became a teacher. They are the reason I am standing here today." His parents, he added, "believed that school was at the heart of our promise of equality of opportunity for all Americans."

Yet Mr. King, like the departing Mr. Duncan, has often disagreed with teachers’ unions and teacher colleges. Indeed, his three-year tenure as New York’s education commissioner was marked by fights over teachers’ preparation and evaluation. Unions protested his plan to judge teachers based on students’ standardized-test scores; teacher colleges complained that they weren’t given enough time to prepare for a new series of harder licensing examinations. Last year the state’s teachers’ union called on Mr. King to resign as commissioner. He left for the department shortly thereafter.

3. He’s passionate about education reform and not easily ruffled by critics.

When Mr. Duncan announced that Mr. King was joining his department last December, he praised Mr. King for his "passion, his fierce intelligence, and his clear understanding of the difficult but vital work of education change."

But some critics of his reform agenda see Mr. King as stubborn and inflexible — adjectives they’ve used to describe Mr. Duncan as well. In an editorial last year, The Journal News of New York's Lower Hudson Valley called the departing commissioner "tone deaf."

"He speaks softly, repeats the same messages over and over, and doesn’t let himself appear to be ruffled by outside forces," the editorial board said. "He forges ahead with an air of certainty about his mission to force schools to get better against their will. That attitude should serve him well in Washington, where Education Secretary Duncan is also impervious to critics of reform."

4. He’s a fan of charter schools.

After graduating from Harvard, Mr. King founded a charter school in Roxbury, a low-income community in Boston. Under his leadership, the school became one of the highest-performing urban middle schools in Massachusetts, closing the racial achievement gap and outperforming not only other schools in the Boston district but also schools in affluent suburbs.

Before joining the New York State Education Department, in 2009, he served as managing director of Uncommon Schools, a nonprofit charter-management organization that operates some of the higher-performing urban public schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, according to his Education Department biography.

5. He isn’t likely to change course.

With the clock ticking on President Obama’s second term, Mr. King’s chief role will be seeing through the administration’s unfinished business, including controversial new rules on teacher preparation that are due out this month. Mr. King, who will take over in December, isn’t even expected to be confirmed by Congress; instead, he’s likely to remain as "acting secretary," a position that doesn’t require congressional approval.

At Friday’s news conference, Mr. King praised the president and Mr. Duncan for their "ambitious agenda" on education, saying he was "proud to be able to carry it forward."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.