Politics & Policy

Ten Questions the Senate Should Ask Obama’s Nominee for Secretary of Education

Education secretary nominee John King (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty)

On Thursday, the Senate will hold a confirmation hearing on John King, Obama’s nominee for secretary of education. King has been temporarily filling the role vacated by former secretary Arne Duncan, the onetime Obama wonder boy who over time alienated Republicans and Democrats alike with his grandiose vision of the secretary’s role and the Department of Education’s sway.

While King has been nominated for what can mostly be regarded as “turn-out-the-light” duty, the Department of Education will wrestle with a few important questions this year, especially the implementation of the new Every Student Succeeds Act. I know King and like and respect him. Even so, it would be a mistake for senators to treat King’s hearing as a pro forma exercise, based on his impressive life story and the lateness of the hour. The Senate would do well to treat this hearing as an opportunity to press for honest answers to some important questions. Here are ten that Senators should be sure to ask:

1. On his way out of office, former secretary Duncan suggested that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does not reduce the department’s authority in the manner that Democrats and Republicans intended, because, as he told reporters, “candidly, our lawyers are much smarter than many of the folks who were working on this bill.” Do you agree with Duncan that creative lawyering will or should allow the secretary to disregard portions of the statute in implementing the law?

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2. The Obama administration has long championed the Common Core. ESSA stipulates that “the Secretary shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards . . . or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or assessments tied to such standards.” Given that you have been an outspoken advocate for the Common Core in New York and here in Washington, can you give us your pledge that you will respect the spirit as well as the letter of that prohibition?

3. ESSA explicitly reflects a bipartisan desire to reduce the federal footprint in America’s schools. So can you explain why the administration’s 2017 budget requests the creation of 269 new positions at the U.S. Department of Education? This would represent an increase of 457 positions from 2015, or more than a 10 percent increase in just two years. Can you explain why these positions are necessary and, moreover, whether these figures are intended to signal disdain for the intent of Congress?

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4. In 2008, candidate Obama said of Milwaukee’s school voucher program: “Let’s see if it works. . . . If it does, whatever my preconceptions, you do what’s best for the kids.” Yet the administration has aggressively sought to put an end to the federally funded model voucher program in Washington, D.C. Perhaps the president is just confused. In 2014, he explained: “Every study that’s been done on school vouchers . . . says that it has very limited impact, if any.” In fact, the evaluation of the D.C. program for the federal Institute of Education Sciences found that the program “significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school.” Given the findings, and your own impressive record in charter schools, will you work to remind the president of his earlier pledge, to explain the evidence to him, and to reverse administration hostility to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program?

5. Since you’ve been at the department, you’ve talked repeatedly about the importance of closing racial and economic “achievement gaps.” That’s a good and important use of the bully pulpit. But you seemingly have had little to say about the educational needs of middle-class and suburban students. Do you think they are already adequately served by their schools? What do you have to say to those children and their families?

#share#6. The past year has seen a great deal of turbulence on college campuses. Whatever one makes of the current debates, there has been a worrisome inclination to stifle certain voices and kinds of speech. What do you think of attempts to silence “hurtful” speech or disinvite unpopular campus speakers? Can we expect you to speak forthrightly and frequently, in a manner that Secretary Duncan did not, on the vital role of free speech and intellectual diversity in higher education?

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7. Last year, an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity was proven to be a fabrication. A disturbed young woman had made up the brutal allegations, a journalist reported them, and Rolling Stone magazine published them without the benefit of fact-checking, spurring a ferocious backlash against members of the fraternity in question. Meanwhile, last fall, Representative Jared Polis (D., Colo.) said, “If there are ten people who have been accused [of campus sexual assault], and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all ten people.” How concerned are you about the incident at the University of Virginia and the way in which administration’s efforts to combat a “campus rape culture” may foster such miscarriages of justice? Do you share Representative Polis’s nonchalant view of such outcomes?

8. On a related note, there is concern that the Department of Education is using Title IX to strip basic constitutional rights from those accused of sexual assault on campus. I’ll quote from a letter that 28 members of the Harvard Law School faculty published in late 2014. They wrote that, under pressure from the Department of Education, “Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation.” What is your response to such concerns? If confirmed as secretary, what would you do to address them?

#related#9. The South Dakota legislature has passed a law saying that boys who identify as girls (or girls who identify as boys) do not have the right to use the bathroom or locker room of their choice. The bill stipulates that such facilities should be “designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex” while also requiring schools to provide a “reasonable accommodation” for transgender children. President Obama’s press secretary has indicated that the administration might react unfavorably to such a law. Do you think South Dakota has the right to determine its own rules on bathroom and locker-room usage, or is that a matter in which you think Department of Education lawyers should intervene? If it’s the latter, on what basis do you deem it appropriate to require a state to allow boys to use the girls’ locker room (and vice versa)?

10. The administration has talked at length about the importance of early-childhood education. Indeed, Secretary Duncan dismissed Republican concerns about federal involvement in pre-K as “economically foolish,” “morally indefensible,” and tantamount to “education malpractice.” Duncan went on to express bewilderment at his inability to win Republican backing, telling the press, “This should absolutely be a nonpolitical, non-ideological investment.” Given that a new federal pre-K program is not in the cards, can you tell us how you’d work with Congress to assess the benefits of current federal pre-K efforts and reduce unnecessary paperwork or bureaucracy?

There’s plenty more worth asking, but this would make for a healthy start.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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