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‘The early signs are not encouraging’: a Q&A with former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

In an interview with MinnPost, King shared his thoughts on the current administration’s performance thus far, along with his thoughts on what may lie ahead.

John B. King, Jr.: "I hope that most governors and legislators will spend their time and attention on strengthening public education, not on the distraction of vouchers."
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

On Thursday morning, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., delivered a keynote address to a group of educators gathered for a conference at the Doubletree Hotel in St. Louis Park. He attended as a champion of an evidence-based school improvement model called Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR). The innovative program, which began in Minnesota, secured federal funding under the Obama administration to scale up.

But future funding for programs like BARR may be in question under President Donald Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. King has spoken out against his successor, who narrowly survived a contentious confirmation hearing and has many education advocates questioning whether she’s capable of being a good steward of the nation’s public schools.

In his current role as president and CEO of Education Trust — a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. that’s focused on closing achievement gaps for students of color and low-income students — King is poised to keep a watchful eye over shifting education policy and oversight. In an interview with MinnPost during his visit Thursday, he shared his thoughts on the current administration’s performance thus far, along with his thoughts on what may lie ahead. 

MinnPost: As MN continues working on its ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] plan, what advice do you have on how to best use this opportunity to advance equity?

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John B. King, Jr.: A few things. One is Minnesota does fairly well, overall. But when you look at the performance of African American students, Latino students, low-income students, Minnesota actually compares pretty poorly. So I think equity has to be the focus of the ESSA plan — figuring out how are they going to make sure that where schools have much lower graduation rates, that there are interventions and supports. BARR is an example of one strategy that they could employ to try to raise high school graduation rates. Will the state have an intervention strategy when a school maybe is doing well overall, but their English language learners are doing poorly, or their African American students are doing poorly? So the measure of whether ESSA actually works will be whether states like Minnesota use the flexibility they have to advance equity. The other thing Minnesota can do — and we’re seeing this in the initial state plans — is to broaden the indicators that they’re looking at to evaluate school success.

MP: In Minnesota, pseudo-voucher legislation is being considered that would give tax breaks to those who donate money that can be used as scholarships at private schools. How much traction do you anticipate school vouchers, or voucher-like initiatives, will get in the coming years?

JK: I’m worried about it. I think vouchers are not a scalable solution to the problems. In many parts of the country, they’re not even a relevant option because there are so few providers other than public schools. At the end of the day, the vast, vast, vast majority of kids are going to be in public schools and we’ve got to make sure our public schools are as strong as possible. So I view the voucher discussion as a distraction from the work, which is about making sure that every public school is high-quality, providing high-quality opportunities for kids, particularly focusing on closing those equity gaps. So I’m against vouchers. I hope that most governors and legislators will spend their time and attention on strengthening public education, not on the distraction of vouchers.

MP: You’ve mentioned before that you have concerns about the Education Department fulfilling its role as a protector of student civil rights moving forward. What are you most concerned about right now?

JK: Well there’s so many things. The first few months have not been very promising. You’ve seen a retreat on protections for transgender students, which I think is wrong, misguided, cruel. You’ve seen signals sent that they’re not going to hold a very high bar for states around whether they’re using ESSA to address equity issues. You’ve seen policy changes that are designed to make it easier for for-profit colleges and service providers to take advantage of students. And the victims have been, disproportionately, low-income folks and folks of color. So far, the message has been one of retreat from federal civil rights responsibilities. What I would worry about is the office of civil rights has a very clear statutory responsibility to protect students. The fear is if districts and states think that the federal government has abandoned this responsibility, they may be less likely to actually look out for the kids and families that are most vulnerable. Sadly, that’s our history as a country. States and local districts have not always done a good job. [For example], there was a district where there was as civil rights complaint because Latino students were vastly underrepresented in advanced STEM programs in the district. It turns out the reason was the information never went home in Spanish. So our office for civil rights worked with the district to address it. You know, we have districts that have a very disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline practices with students of color. Our office for civil rights has worked out agreements with districts to change that. So the question will be: those kinds of office for civil right efforts, will they continue under this administration. And will they also put out guidance and technical assistance and resources to help districts do the right thing for kids? As I said earlier, the early signs are not encouraging.  

MP: Given the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charters and Secretary DeVos’ support of them as a mode of school choice, they’ve become quite political, especially here in Minnesota. What’s your take on the role of charters moving forward?

JK: I’ve always thought charters done well can be a useful laboratory for innovation, as public schools. So where you have a strong charter authorizing law, like Massachusetts — where I was a charter school principal — it’s a very high bar to get a charter, there’s very rigorous oversight of academics and operations, and there’s a willingness to close the low-performing charters. What you have in Massachusetts, in Boston in particular, is really a thriving sector of innovative charters that are developing innovative instructional practices, innovative schedules, innovative staffing approaches — all of which then informs the broader work of trying to improve outcomes in public education, improve equity in public education. That’s why I believe in public charters, because I do think there’s a structure in which, done right, they can contribute very positively to broader public education and improvement. Unfortunately, in contrast, you have a state like Michigan, where you have a terrible charter law. You have a proliferation of low-performing, for-profit charters. And the charters in Massachusetts that are doing a good job are now lumped in with these low-performing, for-profit charters in Michigan and I think the public, understandably, is at times having a hard time distinguishing between the different types of charter, or different types of charter laws. Unfortunately, my successor, she played a central role in the development of Michigan’s charter law and it’s worked out very poorly for students and families. My hope would be that she and others have learned from that and, going forward, they’ll invest in strong charter authorizing and a high-bar for charter quality.

MP: Do you foresee the new education administration being able to move forward any initiatives you support, but weren’t able to address while in office?

JK: A couple of things I’m hopeful about. One is the Perkins Act reauthorization. That’s as much about congress as it is the administration. We’ve had conversations over the years about reauthorizing Perkins — Perkins supports career-technical education — and there was a strong bipartisan effort last year to try to do Perkins reauthorization focusing on strengthening the partnerships between high schools and higher ed institutions and employers, and making sure they’re working closely together to support student success. That is likely to come back up in congress. If the administration works closely with them, that could turn out to be a good bipartisan bill. I hope that’s the case. If there’s an infrastructure bill and a major investment in infrastructure, there’s an opportunity to do two things. One is do some of the important facilities work that is needed in high-needs communities that have poor facilities for their students. There’s also an opportunity to invest in educational programs and job training so that jobs in those infrastructure projects are available to low-income folks, folks throughout the community who have been historically underserved. Both of those are opportunities to work together. But I’d also love to see the administration change their positions on some of the core issues around civil rights enforcement in educational equity. I hope, as the new secretary spends time visiting schools and talking with teachers and parents and students, she will see the need to shift the approach they’ve taken so far.

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MP: What issues do you think education reporters need to keep a particularly close eye on?

JK: A few things. This was talked a lot about at the Education Writers Association conference last year, is the issue of school diversity or, to the contrary, many communities where students are isolated by race or class and the ways in which that then results in limited opportunities for kids. The Century Foundation did a report on 100 communities around the country that are doing active school diversity initiatives, either by designing schools that are diverse by design, or creating district-wide policies — sometimes referred to as controlled-choice — where you try to ensure that there’s a racial and socioeconomic diversity across schools. That, I think, is an important question. Minnesota is not immune from those issues and it’s an important thing to look at. Second is what happens with ESSA implementation, particularly on the intervention side. So much of the conversation and coverage, nationally, has been: What’s the fifth indicator? How much is each thing going to weigh? California has this very complicated, multicolored dashboard. It’s very hard, I think, for parents to understand. But at the end of the day, what California, for example, hasn’t answered is: If everything on the dashboard is red, what happens? What happens next in that school? And if that doesn’t result in an improvement, what happens next? That’s where BARR comes in. Do you have an evidence-based strategy for improvement in the schools? So I think that’ll be an important thing to follow. And in the Minnesota context, is there a viable plan to improve performance in schools that are low-performing overall, or schools that have low-performing groups? The third thing, on higher ed, is this question around the for-profits. We did a lot of work under the Obama administration to try to reign in an industry that had been previously allowed to run amok. We would always say we’re agnostic about the tax status of an institution. The key question is: Are students getting a decent education? And are they leaving with opportunity? And, too often, the for-profit schools were running low-quality programs, or even worse, scams, that were just taking advantage of students and they were leaving with nothing but debt. All the early signs from the current administration are that they’re going to retreat from the accountability measures we’ve put in place and allow these institutions to again take advantage of students.

MP: Anything else?

JK: One other thing to pay attention to would be teacher diversity. If you look nationally, the majority of kids in public schools are kids of color. But only about 18 percent of teachers are teachers of color. There was just a recent study that showed that African American students who had at least one African-American teacher in elementary school were more likely to graduate from high school. So I think there’s emerging evidence of the importance of teacher diversity for students of color, but also for white students to see teachers and school leaders who are diverse. That’s another place where Minnesota has some work to do. There are some communities that are implementing smart strategies — early recruitment of college students to work at youth-serving programs so they can see potential in themselves to work as teachers, subsidies for teachers to go into high-needs schools or to go into high-needs subject areas. Some states are doing really smart things around that. Tennessee just put out a really great report that’s worth looking at, on their teacher prep. They basically looked at: What’s our real teacher shortage? They also looked at the issue of teacher diversity. Tennessee has a really good data system, so they can actually link teacher prep institutions to student outcomes — say how the graduates of a particular school are affecting students. That, I think, is a really interesting topic to explore.

MP: There are a lot of initiatives being considered at our state capitol right now to help diversify the teacher pipeline. But what works well in retaining teachers of color? What supports need to be in place?

JK: We did a report at Education Trust called “Through Our Eyes,” which is perspectives of African American teachers. It’s really interesting. In some communities, the pipeline of new teachers actually is somewhat diverse, but then retention is a problem. Some things that will come up: a lot of African American teachers, especially African American male teachers, are being expected to be the person to whom we send the kids who are struggling the most, the boys who are struggling the most. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post about this, “The invisible tax on teachers of color.” Because even if you want to do that, it’s still added work. Now you’re taking on this other responsibility in the school culture. Or the other phenomenon that comes up is teachers who are bilingual in a community that is bilingual. They’re expected to be the translator for the whole school. That’s a whole lot of extra work and responsibility. So one thing is: Are districts, principals, mindful of what else of being asked of their teachers of color and are they supporting them around those things? Another piece is are you creating a community amongst teachers of color so that folks know each other and have a source of support and mentorship, especially young teachers needing mentors? There’s also the question of equitable compensation. Are high-needs districts able to pay teachers enough? Are there incentives to stay for effective teachers? Are there incentives to become coaches and mentors for their colleagues? And career ladders? Because I think for a lot of folks, certainly folks who are under 30 or 40, they don’t expect to do the same exact job for the entirety of their career. So creating opportunities for folks who are really good, who can be teacher leaders without leaving the classroom, that can be a very powerful lever for retention.