breaking

After turbulent tenure, State Ed Commissioner John King stepping down for federal ed job

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Former New York State Education Commissioner John King will take over for Arne Duncan as U.S. education secretary.

State Education Commissioner John King is stepping down to join the U.S. Education Department after three-and-a-half years leading the state’s turbulent and divisive transition to tough new learning standards and teacher evaluations.

King has served as the state’s top education official since 2011, during which time he managed the rollout of the Common Core standards and a new teacher-rating system that for the first time factored in student test scores. Both policies were backed by the federal government and many school-reform advocates, but they enraged many parents who saw their children’s test scores plummet and educators who felt ill-prepared for the sweeping changes. Even as his critics, including the state teachers union, called for his ouster, King defended the initiatives as necessary reforms.

King will step down at the end of the year and join the Obama administration as a senior advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“I’m humbled and honored to have the chance to work with President Obama and Secretary Duncan,” King said in a statement. “We have accomplished great things for New York’s students. As a kid whose life was saved by the incredible teachers I had in public schools in Brooklyn, I’m proud to have served my fellow New Yorkers.”

King, the state’s first African-American and Puerto Rican education commissioner, was 36 when he was appointed to replace David Steiner, under whom he had been a top deputy.

He moved swiftly to put the new learning standards into practice after the state adopted the them in 2010, introducing Common Core tests ahead of most states and before many schools had updated their textbooks. The first round of Common Core tests last year caused students’ scores to plummet, and when the changes drew inevitable backlash, King proved less savvy at managing criticism. Last fall, he called off a series of public meetings about the new standards after the first one proved contentious, earning scorn from parents and the state teachers union.

“The disconnect between the commissioner’s vision and what parents, educators and students want for their public education system became so great, NYSUT voted ‘no confidence’ in Commissioner King last spring and called for his resignation,” the New York State United Teachers said in a statement Wednesday, adding that it hoped King “has learned from his stormy tenure in New York.”

As the criticism mounted, King was also losing crucial allies across the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed legislation to untie student test scores from teacher evaluations for two years, something that King had steadfastly refused to support. And the de Blasio administration in New York City has proved a less willing partner than the Bloomberg administration, sparring with the state over its plans to intervene in struggling schools.

King has also criticized the city’s education department at points, especially for its enrollment policies that he said too often left schools with concentrations of high-needs students. While his strong support of charter schools contrasts with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s mixed views on charters, she has publicly backed King and the Common Core.

“It has been a privilege to work so closely with Commissioner King as we move our school system forward,” Fariña said in a statement. “I congratulate him on his new role and look forward to our continued collaboration.”

King’s departure leaves a leadership void at the state education department at a time when its direction is less certain. The Race to the Top education grants created by the Obama administration pumped millions into the state education budget during King’s tenure, empowering him to push for sweeping policy changes, but that funding is now running out.

He is the second top state education official to take a job at the federal education department in less than a year: Amy McIntosh, who oversaw teacher evaluations as a senior fellow at the Board of Regent’s Research Fund, is now a deputy assistant secretary. Two of the state’s deputy commissioners, Elizabeth Berlin and Ken Wagner, will manage the department after King’s departure, officials said, and a subcommittee of the state’s Board of Regents will launch a search for a permanent replacement.

The news of King’s move, which became public on Wednesday evening, appeared to catch some state education officials off guard. Sources said that King had not informed staff about the move and that an announcement was planned for next week’s Board of Regents meeting.

But King has been a favorite for high-profile positions outside of New York before. In 2010, when he was serving as deputy commissioner, King turned down an offer to take over as superintendent of Newark’s schools. King had also been tapped to join the federal education department before, an offer he also turned down because his tenure in Albany was young, sources said.

Before serving as state commissioner, King served as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, a charter school network and founded the high-performing Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston.

King has deep roots in Brooklyn, where his father was the borough’s first African-American school principal. King attended P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island, and he credited teachers there for inspiring him after both of his parents died before his 13th birthday.

“As a teacher, principal and policymaker, my goal is and has always been to give every student what Mr. Osterweil gave me — a classroom where they feel supported and inspired and challenged,” King said in April.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede