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John B. King Jr. to become acting U.S. education secretary as Arne Duncan resigns

State Education Commissioner John King, Jr. listens to

State Education Commissioner John King, Jr. listens to a speaker during a forum on Common Core learning reforms at the Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

WASHINGTON -- John B. King Jr., who as New York State's education commissioner drew national attention for advocating a controversial school-reform agenda, is taking over the U.S. Education Department as acting secretary at the end of the year, President Barack Obama announced Friday.

King, 40, the deputy education secretary since January, is "the right man to lead the department," Obama said at a White House news conference. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will step down in December after seven years in the job.

The president avoided a Senate confirmation fight over the cabinet position by leaving the role of secretary vacant for the remainder of his presidency.

With King, Obama has chosen an educator with a compelling personal story, a Brooklyn-born African-American with Puerto Rican heritage who lost both parents before reaching his teen years but still excelled at the nation's top colleges.

"Teachers are the reason I am alive," King said. "They are the reason I became a teacher. They are the reason I am standing here today."

The president's choice also had a tumultuous tenure as New York State's education commissioner from 2011 to 2014, as he pushed more stringent student testing tied to teacher evaluations as part of adherence to the Common Core national academic standards. The departing Duncan has stirred his own storms of controversy by also pushing for high-stakes teacher testing and a focus on charter schools.

Asked if King's appointment was a signal of change in direction, an Obama administration official said, "This administration has made clear its concerns that in some places, testing has become excessive, and its support for a cap. Dr. King will continue that effort."

Reactions to King's elevation were mixed.

The New York State United Teachers union said it was "disappointed" in the appointment of an educator it labeled an "ideologue" and who it called on to resign last year when he still led the state's schools.

But Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state's Board of Regents, praised King in a statement as an "extraordinary leader and an incredible partner" for working with her on issues, including adoption of tougher testing standards and teacher evaluations.

"With vision and courage he led the transition to higher standards, a stronger curriculum and critical reforms in teacher preparation," Tisch said.

A parent-led statewide testing boycott stemming from those changes has developed into the largest movement of its type in the nation, with more than 200,000 students in grades three through eight opting out of state standardized exams in the spring. About 70,000 of those students were in public schools on Long Island.

"It's just a disaster," said Allison White, a Port Washington parent and leader of Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, a grassroots group opposed to many of the state's testing and teacher-evaluation policies. "Personally, I'm very disappointed with President Obama for continuing on this disastrous course for public education."

In the news conference, Obama said a public goodbye to one of his closest friends and longest-serving members of his cabinet.

"He's done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else," Obama said of Duncan. "America will be better off for what he has done."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee that oversees education, called Duncan "one of the president's best appointments."

Alexander added, "When we disagree, it is usually because he believes the path to effective teaching, higher standards and real accountability is through Washington, D.C., and I believe it should be in the hands of states, communities, parents and classroom teachers."

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