WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's nominee for Education Secretary told senators Thursday that the focus of decision-making on elementary and secondary education is "rightly shifting" to the states and away from the federal government.
John B. King Jr. is poised to oversee the Education Department as it is losing some of its authority. A bipartisan education law passed by Congress and signed by Obama in December revamps the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, and substantially limits some of the federal government's influence ushered in by that 2002 law.
The new law bars 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.
"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.
Under questioning from senators, King promised his department will adhere to the new law and its limits on federal intervention.
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.
In a sharply partisan Senate where Republicans have held up several of Obama's nominations — and are pledging no hearings for a potential Supreme Court nominee — King looks to be an exception.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as education secretary under former President George H.W. Bush, pressed the administration to nominate a new secretary after the bipartisan education overhaul was signed. He said he didn't think it was appropriate to go a whole year without a secretary firmly in place.
"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 said.
After the hearing, Alexander said he thought King was "well received" by the panel and scheduled a committee vote on his nomination March 9.
"I think his prospects are excellent," he said.
In addition to the new law, senators also quizzed King on student loans and college campus sexual assault, among other issues.
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. The move closed schools, left thousands of students with hefty student debt and frustrated 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 on the issue from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
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 that continues to be a priority.
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."
In his opening testimony, King said his New York City public school teachers "literally saved my life." He 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.
Associated Press writer Jennifer C. Kerr contributed to this report.
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