Smooth Ride for Would-Be Secretary

In a confirmation hearing, the Senate education committee seemed confident that John B. King Jr. would be approved as education secretary.

February 26, 2016

When former Education Secretary Arne Duncan stepped down at the end of last year, President Obama indicated that John B. King Jr. would serve as acting secretary only.

But on Thursday, King sat before the Senate education committee for his confirmation hearing, and the senators seemed optimistic about his prospects.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the committee’s chairman and himself a former U.S. education secretary, had promised King a “prompt and fair hearing.” In his opening marks, Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, reiterated his commitment to bipartisanship, and talked about the drawn-out confirmation battle he faced as a nominee back in 1991.

“I don’t suspect,” he said, “we’re going to have any of those problems today.”

King hasn’t been at the Education Department for long, and in their questions, the senators acknowledged that many of the concerns they cited -- and there were a lot -- arose before his time. The committee will meet next in March to consider the nomination, and even the committee's Republican leaders expressed confidence that the nomination would go through.

King told the Senate that he’s hopeful about the future of U.S. education -- graduation rates are at a new high, and millions more have access to higher education than when Obama first took office -- and said he’s committed to supporting the country’s students. “It won’t be easy,” he said. “The most critical work rarely is.”

Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, asked King about sexual assault on college campuses and what the department's Office for Civil Rights is doing to help colleges comply with Title IX. “At least one in five women are being sexually assaulted on college campuses,” she said, citing a statistic that has been widely embraced by policy makers though it remains disputed. “That is stunning.”

King called sexual-assault prevention a “top priority,” and said the department will continue to help colleges understand what they can do to comply with the law.

King fielded several questions on student debt, mostly from Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. After Corinthian Colleges collapsed, she said, the Education Department promised to fast-track debt relief for thousands of students -- but only 1,300 have received relief so far. “I don’t understand why this takes so long,” she said.

King promised that the Education Department is trying to make the process move faster, and that it’s starting to group claims in order to respond more quickly.

“You’re right,” he said, “we need to make the process move faster.”

“You’ve promised fast-track to 40,000,” Warren said. “I hope that, if you’re confirmed, you’ll use that authority to make sure they get every dime of relief they deserve.”

King also fielded questions on reining in unnecessary regulations. Alexander pointed to his own bill, which proposed shrinking the Free Application for Federal Student Aid from 108 questions to two, and asked King how he would simplify student aid. Senator Pat Roberts held up a list of federal regulations at a community college in Kansas and read the items one by one. “The cost is exceeding the benefit,” the Kansas Republican said. “All of these people have jobs to do.”

King said he would help identify ways the department can reduce burdensome regulations, and noted that students filling out the FAFSA can now use “prior-prior year” data -- information from two-year-old tax returns, rather than information from the previous year.

But in regard to student loans, King also said that he hopes to see “a shift in focus toward completion.” It’s the students who don’t graduate, he said, who can have the most trouble paying off loans.

Alexander agreed. The senator, whose questions throughout the two-hour hearing remained cordial, said he was glad that Obama officially nominated King. “Once you’re confirmed,” he said, “I want to do my best to create an environment where you can succeed.”


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