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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Federal education chiefs change, but school wars go on

For years, John B. King Jr. was vilified by teachers unions as a man who wanted to undermine public education, was obsessed with testing and ignored student needs and teacher input.

New York State United Teachers called for his resignation in 2014, when King was commissioner of the state Education Department. And in 2015, NYSUT asked members to call the White House to oppose King’s appointment as federal secretary of education, calling him an “ideologue.”

Mostly, it wasn’t fair or true. King was far from perfect, and the rollout he oversaw of new Common Core standards and new curriculums was a disaster. Parents, students and teachers were not properly prepared.

But those problems have largely been fixed. The curriculums now match the standards, and many teachers say both are appropriate. What largely earned King the lasting ire of the teachers union was his public support for charter schools, tougher tests to certify teachers and the state system he implemented that judged educators partially based on student scores on standardized tests. That policy eventually led to 50 percent of Long Island students opting out of those tests.

Last week, King’s time in the job ended as Donald Trump took over the White House and as his secretary of education nominee, Betsy DeVos, was screened by Congress to take over the department. In an interview Thursday, as King spoke about his life, his beliefs on education and what he’d like to see happen, one thing became clear.

In DeVos, educators will now actually face the person they unfairly painted King to be.

King was accused of having never attended public school, teaching in a public school, running a public school or putting his kids in public school. In fact, he attended, taught in and ran a public school, and his daughters go to public schools.

DeVos, though, has never worked in any school, and neither she nor her kids have attended a public school.

King was painted as a supporter of for-profit charter schools and an enemy of traditional schools. But what he believes in is “public charter schools as labs for excellence overseen with strong accountability, places where great methods and outcomes can be created, then duplicated in traditional schools.” King, who lost both of his parents by age 12, says, “The teachers I encountered in the New York City public schools saved my life.” And King opposes vouchers that would let students use public funding to attend private schools.

DeVos supports a huge expansion of both public and for-profit charter schools, as well as voucher programs.

Many of the things King promoted in New York and Washington that so roiled teachers unions make tremendous sense. Increased flexibility to let students take Advanced Placement courses from teachers in other districts via the internet, for instance, is a wonderful idea for students who need access to AP courses, even if it could cost union jobs. Tougher tests for certification would help make sure teachers are better prepared. And yes, part of teacher evaluations should be based on standardized tests that measure year-over-year growth of their students.

But NYSUT and educators all over the country have fought sensible innovations with the kind of stubborn intransigence that infuriates voters. It’s rage at that kind of maddening bureaucracy that, in part, got Trump elected. And Trump nominated DeVos, driving educators into a rage.

It would almost be funny if the joke were on teachers unions. But since the joke is likely to be on students instead, it’s just sad.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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