THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Last King of Education
Those who are struggling to make sense of the current political moment might benefit from contemplating the significance of a little-noticed item in Monday's news: the confirmation of John B. King as Secretary of Education by the United States Senate. By a vote of 49-40, the "world's greatest deliberative body" stamped its imprimatur on a man whose incompetence could not have been more obviously and publicly demonstrated than during his disastrous tenure as Commissioner of Education for the State of New York. His implausible ascension to a cabinet-level position in the federal government is an exceptional example of governmental ineptitude, political cowardice, ideological certitude and policy blindness all wrapped into one neat package.
When King was elevated to the of position Deputy Secretary of Education under Arne Duncan last year, New Yorkers of all political persuasions shook their heads in disbelief. As Commissioner, he presided over the botched rollout of the Common Core curriculum and a tangentially related battery of standardized tests. This administrative meltdown was daily chronicled in the state's news media, leading directly to an "opt-out" movement by hundreds of thousands of New York parents who took the unprecedented step of refusing to allow their elementary and middle school-aged children to take the state's tests. King's attempts to quell the rebellion only made matters worse. In a series of public forums around the state, he appeared arrogant and divorced from reality, righteously defending his own pedagogical theory in the face of withering criticism from all quarters. It came to a point where he seemed to have only one supporter left in the state, the Chancellor, Merryl H. Tisch, who had plucked him from obscurity to make him commissioner in the first place. King resigned amidst a din of boos and jeers. Tisch herself has just recently followed him out the exit.
What should have been the end of an unfortunate and ignominious career in the upper echelons of public education turned out to be merely a minor stumble on King's upward trajectory. First Duncan, perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit, made him his deputy. Then, with the self-justifying logic of political expediency, President Obama tapped King to replace Duncan when he resigned at the end of last year. Not only must New Yorkers now endure the aggravation of seeing King for the remaining months of the Obama administration — testifying before Congress, conducting photo ops in public schools, and performing the sundry other pointless duties of Education Secretary — but they will have to see him in the public square for decades to come as a talking head and alleged education expert. New York's teachers and administrators, who fought tooth and nail with King over an ill-conceived and thoughtlessly punitive teacher evaluation system (which has since been suspended by the governor) will spend years attempting to undo the damage wrought by King's calamitous tenure in the state, all the while having to suffer his pronouncements from on high.
The King debacle only reinforces a deeply cynical view that has been seething for years about government in general and the educational bureaucracy in particular. Among many New York educators and other voters, who could otherwise be relied upon to support the policies of a Democratic administration, there is more than a little support for one political promise habitually put forth by Republican candidates for president: abolishing the Department of Education. In decades past, when that department hewed closely to its original mission — to level the playing field for disadvantaged students through remedial and special needs programs, and to assist less fortunate high school graduates with college grants and loans — it was fulfilling a vitally important egalitarian function. But the last two presidential administrations have turned the department into a meddlesome, hectoring bully, forcing upon the states its preferred policies either by the threat of withholding federal aid or by dangling billions of dollars in federal carrots before the eyes of greedy governors and state legislators. (Incidentally, the $700 million received by New York from the president's Race to the Top initiative was largely spent on private contractors to develop curriculum and write new tests, an effort which now is mostly being scuttled, thanks largely to King's misrule.)
It is hard to think of a governmental responsibility that is more clearly reserved by the states than the public schools. The word "education" does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. The appointment of King will only harden opinions against federal intrusions into local matters, and deepen voters' contempt for Washington. It is inconceivable that many if not most senators, who can be presumed to keep up with the news, were unaware of the goings-on in New York over the previous few years. Then how did even 49 senators vote to confirm him? One can only assume that once a president makes an appointment, the imperatives of politics take over and reasoned argument goes out the window. The members of the president's party typically vote with him, if they can stomach it, and the opposition party votes against him, even if they cannot. One notable exception in this case is Senator Gillibrand of New York, who broke with her Democratic colleagues and voted against the confirmation of King, precisely because of his poor performance as New York's education commissioner. When you've seen someone's work up close, you don't need to conduct an interview to know whether or not he's qualified. Senator Schumer assuredly heard from his constituents on this appointment, too, but apparently made a different political calculation. Conscience is seldom a political asset.
If a Republican is elected president next November, it's a pretty safe bet that King will be the nation's last secretary of education, at least for a while. How fitting it would be if a man who proved himself utterly incapable of running a state educational administration should now preside over the demise of its federal counterpart. King is the just sort of person you hire to run your company when you know you're about to go out of business: no point in wasting talent on a show that's about to close. Too bad for the nation's schoolchildren that their new national champion has even less credibility than the lawmakers who voted to confirm him.
March 16, 2016
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