Speeches

Mr. President, last week the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee voted to advance President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Dr. John King. Tonight the nomination is set to come before the Senate not for a robust debate, but for a hasty vote. And by all accounts, confirmation is expected.

I rise today to oppose the nomination of Dr. King, and to urge my colleagues to join me in voting against his confirmation as Secretary of Education.

I have studied Dr. King’s professional record – most notably his time in New York’s Department of Education. And I have reviewed the transcripts of his confirmation hearing.

Based on the policies that he has supported, the bipartisan opposition he has invited throughout his career, and his uncompromising commitment to the designs of bureaucrats and central planners over the lived experiences of parents and teachers, I believe it would be a grave error for the Senate to confirm Dr. King’s nomination at this time.

Indeed, I believe it would be difficult for anyone to support Dr. King’s nomination on the basis of his record.

The problem is not that Dr. King lacks experience. On paper, you might even think that Secretary of Education is the natural next step in his career.

After three years as a teacher and a brief stint managing charter schools, Dr. King has risen through the ranks of the education bureaucracy, climbing from one political appointment to the next.

But do we really think that someone who has spent more time in a government agency than in a classroom is best suited to oversee federal education policy? 

And more to the point, what matters isn’t the jobs that someone has held, but the policies they have advanced.

This, Mr. President, is the problem with Dr. King’s nomination.

Look closely at his record – especially the three and a half years he spent as New York’s education commissioner, where he forced on an unwilling school system unpopular Common Core curriculum and standards, an inflexible testing regime, and a flawed teacher evaluation system.

All of this proves that Dr. King is the standard bearer of No Child Left Behind – the discredited K-12 regime that has become synonymous with dysfunctional education policy in classrooms and households across America.

This isn’t just my opinion; it was the opinion of New York’s parents, teachers, legislators, school board members, and superintendents – the vast majority of whom opposed, and protested against, Dr. King and the policies he championed while at the helm of the state’s education department.

Mr. President, this Congress and President Obama have promised to move federal education policy in the opposite direction established by No Child Left Behind. Under these circumstances, Dr. King – the embodiment of the failed K-12 status quo – is not the person who should be put in charge of the Department of Education. 

If confirmed, Dr. King would serve as the head of the Department for ten months, until January 2017, when the next president is sworn into office. This may sound like an insignificant amount of time for a cabinet secretary to serve.

But in reality, the next ten months are crucially important to the future of federal education policy in America.

Just a few months ago, Congress passed and President Obama signed the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” or ESSA – a bill that reauthorized the law governing federal K-12 education policy. And now the Department of Education will begin implementing the ESSA, which will set the course of the Department for years to come.

So what happens over the next ten months within the Department of Education will have sweeping, far-reaching consequences for America’s schools, teachers, and students... consequences that will affect not just the quality of education students receive as children, but the quality of life available to them as adults.

One of the most serious flaws of the ESSA – and one of the primary reasons I voted against the bill – is that it reinforces the same K-12 model that has trapped so many kids in failing schools and confined America’s education system to a state of mediocrity for half a century... this is a model that concentrates authority over education decisions in the hands of federal politicians and bureaucrats, instead of parents, teachers, principals, and local school boards.

And there is no government official who is granted more discretion or more authority under the ESSA than the Secretary of Education.

The ESSA purports to reduce the federal government’s control over America’s classrooms, by returning decision-making authority to parents, educators, and local officials.

For instance, there are several provisions that prohibit the Secretary of Education from controlling state education plans or coercing states into adopting federal standards and testing regimes.

But when you look at the fine print, you see that in most cases these prohibitions against federal overreach contain no enforcement mechanisms – only vague, aspirational statements encouraging the Secretary to limit his own powers.

So the question is: if confirmed as Secretary of Education, would Dr. King adhere to the spirit of the ESSA and voluntarily return decision-making authority to parents, teachers, and local officials? 

There is little reason to believe that he would.

Dr. King’s former boss and would-be predecessor, Arne Duncan, certainly had no qualms about violating similar prohibitions against federal overreach found in No Child Left Behind. Nor has he shied away from advertising the fact that ESSA would function in much the same way as No Child Left Behind.

In an interview with Politico, Duncan discussed whether the ESSA would, in fact, reduce the federal government’s control over America’s classrooms. He was asked “How do you respond to the notion that you’ve had your wings clipped on your way out the door?”

This was Duncan’s response: “...candidly, our lawyers are much smarter than many of the folks who were working on this bill.”

In other words, Congress can write whatever bill it wants, and the administration’s lawyers will be able to figure out a way to implement it according to the preferences of the cabinet secretaries and their armies of bureaucrats.

This is certainly a brazen admission of bureaucratic arrogance by former Secretary Duncan. But it is exactly in line with the way that Dr. King approached his job as education commissioner of New York just a few years ago.

Under King’s leadership, New York became one of the first states to implement Common Core standards and testing requirements, starting in 2011. 

And Dr. King was one of the only education commissioners in the country to insist on rolling out the tests before teachers had been given adequate time to adapt to the new curriculum imposed by Common Core.

To the surprise of no one – except, perhaps, for Dr. King – the results were a disaster.

The 2013 Common Core tests only widened the achievement gap and sparked the Opt Out Movement in New York, which mobilized 65,000 students to opt out of Common Core state tests in 2014, and more than 200,000 students to opt out in 2015.

To make matters worse, around the same time that teachers were being forced to test their students on material they hadn’t been given time to incorporate into their curriculum, Dr. King implemented a teacher evaluation system that relied heavily on these distorted student test scores. This evaluation system was so unpopular that in 2014 one of New York’s teacher’s unions called for Dr. King’s resignation.

What’s most troubling about Dr. King’s tenure as education commissioner isn’t that he centralized decision-making authority within the state’s education department, imposing one-size-fits-all policies across a diverse school system. Plenty of education commissioners are guilty of the same, if not worse.

No, the real problem with Dr. King’s record is that he routinely and, apparently, as a matter of policy, ignored the advice and feedback of teachers, parents, principals, and school board members.

Even as his centrally-planned house of cards was tumbling down around him, Dr. King stayed the course – believing, against all available evidence, that when it comes to running a classroom, bureaucrats and politicians know better than teachers, parents, and local school boards.

Mr. President, when the Senate confirms a presidential nominee, we are doing more than just approving a personnel matter. We are accepting what that nominee stands for.

So we must ask ourselves as we consider this nomination: what kind of policy do the American people want? And what kind of policy do America’s elementary and secondary students deserve? 

We know that local control over K-12 – and even pre-K – education is more effective than Washington, D.C.’s prescriptive, heavy handed approach, because we’ve seen it work in communities all across the country.

The point isn’t that there’s a better way to improve America’s schools – but that there are fifty better ways... even thousands of better ways. 

But Washington is standing in the way, distrustful of any alternative to the top-down education status quo. And under the leadership of Dr. King, Washington’s outdated, conformist policies will continue to stand in the way.

America’s students deserve better than this. The least we can do is choose not to accept the failed status quo.

So I urge all of my colleagues to join me in voting against this nomination.

I yield the floor.