Stand Tall, John King

March 27, 2014 | by Tim Daly

At this weekend’s annual meeting, representatives of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) are expected to follow through on a longstanding threat to vote “no confidence” in the state’s chief education official, John King. 

Put plainly, the intent of the vote is to intimidate King. He has steadfastly insisted on raising the standard for what it means to master basic subject areas in New York classrooms. The union has demanded that King delay—for years—any accountability for teachers to help students make progress against the Common Core State Standards. King has stood his ground. The planning process has already lasted four years. He believes that a 2010 law adopting new teacher evaluation parameters, passed with the union’s hearty support, should now be implemented as agreed. In the recent state budget negotiations, the governor and the state legislature agreed with him and declined to make any changes to teacher evaluation. At least for now, the issue appears settled. 

NYSUT’s efforts may have failed, but its leaders are not moving on. They still want payback. In February, the union’s directors issued a public threat: either King gives in or it will rally members to seek his resignation. This vote would fulfill the threat.

Why would King risk an all-out attack by the best-funded interest group in the state when he could just accede to the union’s policy demands and make it go away? 

To understand, you need to know John King. He does not see himself as an appointed official navigating the notorious politics of Albany. He still sees himself as a boy whose life was changed—and possibly saved—by great public schools. And he is not about to break his commitments to today’s students, no matter who’s demanding it.

King experienced a childhood with challenges that most of us cannot imagine. His mother died of a heart attack when he was eight. Four years later, his father, who had been the first African American school principal in Brooklyn, succumbed to Alzheimer’s. King could have quit. But he kept going to school, and nurturing teachers kept pushing him to his fulfill his potential. He also could have quit when he secured a golden opportunity to attend an elite boarding school, but found himself a fish out of water in an all-white environment and was expelled. Again, he kept going. And wow, did he go.

Just eight years after his father passed away, King graduated from Harvard. He earned a master’s degree at Teachers College and became a public school teacher. Then he completed law school at Yale. And a doctorate back at Teachers College. He started and led several outstanding public schools that achieved exceptional outcomes for low-income students. Instead of becoming a bleak educational statistic, King epitomized hope.

We need leaders like John King. There are enough safe leaders from safe backgrounds who take the safe path to senior positions and then adopt the safest policies available to them. Under those safe leaders, our schools have failed the overwhelming majority of low-income families. I rest easier at night knowing that there are a few education leaders out there like John King, who know what it’s like to go to bed hungry or to feel entirely alone. Or to be the only dark-skinned face in a sea of white faces. It gives me comfort to know that he is in there, fighting for every student to get the same education he got. I love the fact that when King makes a commitment to do something, he keeps the commitment, even when others break theirs.

It’s difficult to figure out why NYSUT’s leadership has such enmity for the state commissioner personally—especially given that his position on evaluation has been shared by the legislature, Board of Regents, and governor. He hasn’t lost his temper, even when he was treated deplorably in forums on Long Island and elsewhere. He doesn’t enjoy the political elements of his job. But he accepts them because they are part of the job. He’s a fantastic educator with a track record that far exceeds those of his critics. Even if you don’t agree with every policy New York is enacting—and I certainly respect those who feel that way—it’s awfully hard not to admire John King as a public servant.

So why the no-confidence vote? King’s greatest crime is refusing to be bullied by NYSUT’s bosses, the ever-present forces in behind-the-scenes New York deal making. He is accused of standing by the promises he made in 2010, while NYSUT shamelessly breaks its own. 

NYSUT leaders believed King would fear them. This was a mistake that led to a series of deplorable moments for the union. NYSUT and its affiliates said nothing when union flacks taunted and shouted at King in public, then blamed him afterwards. Its top officials repeatedly threatened his job. But John King has not buckled. 

NYSUT representatives would be better off tabling this embarrassing vote on John King and shifting to a vote of no confidence in its own bosses, who had a chance to stand up for a fresh era in New York schools when educators lead the way toward better results and richer classrooms. Instead, they’ve spent the past year breaking their written commitments on their support for Race to the Top, blaming the state for a surge in local testing that they helped cause, and squabbling over which faction will run the union.

It’s hard to imagine that New York’s hard-working and capable teachers are going to be proud of what the union leaders are doing. But it’s also important for observers to understand that “teachers” aren’t doing this. The majority of rank and file teachers checked out long ago from union shenanigans. John King is the kind of guy teachers want their students to become, not the kind of guy they’d like to run out of town.

I hope John King spends the weekend of April 5-6 enjoying some time with his family, paying not a whit of attention to the NYSUT vote. To be hounded by the leaders of an interest group like NYSUT, especially when they are desperate to divert member attention from their own failings, is inevitable for any leader who does the right thing. And I believe that on April 7, when the vote is done and everyone heads back to work, Governor Cuomo and the Regents will be more firmly behind John King than ever before.

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