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Senate confirms King as education secretary

John King Jr. testified on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 25.Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Monday to confirm John King Jr. as education secretary, a move that shows that education has become a rare issue on which a polarized Washington can reach bipartisan compromise.

Some Republicans joined Democrats in voting, 49 to 40, in favor of King’s confirmation at a time when key GOP senators are refusing to even consider an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court.

Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee — chairman of the Education Committee, who previously served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush — urged his colleagues to confirm King.

Alexander argued that the Education Department needs a leader who can be held to account as the nation implements a sweeping new education law that replaced the longmaligned No Child Left Behind.

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“This vote is not about whether one of us would have chosen Dr. King to be the education secretary. Republicans won’t have the privilege of picking an education secretary until we elect the president of the United States,” Alexander said Monday, 25 years to the day after his own Senate confirmation. “We need a United States education secretary confirmed by and accountable to the United States Senate so that the law to fix No Child Left Behind will be implemented the way Congress wrote it.”

King, 41, has been serving as acting secretary since his predecessor Arne Duncan stepped down at the end of 2015. A former teacher, principal, and charter school founder, he led New York’s state Education Department from 2011 until 2014, when he joined the US Education Department.

In 1999, he cofounded Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in the Mission Hill section of Boston, where he was codirector for five years.

King is a graduate of Phillips Andover Academy and has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia, and a law degree from Yale.

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President Obama nominated King last month, saying at the time that “there is nobody better to continue leading our ongoing efforts to work toward preschool for all, prepare our kids so that they are ready for college and career, and make college more affordable.”

Obama also highlighted King’s powerful personal story: Orphaned at 12, King credits public school teachers in Brooklyn with saving his life and giving him faith in his potential.

One of King’s main jobs during the next 10 months will be shepherding the implementation of the new education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed into law by Obama in December, it shifts much of the authority over public schools from the federal to states and school districts.

King pledged to uphold the spirit of that shift to local control during his confirmation hearing last month. But he also emphasized that the federal government will continue to have an important role in making sure that states and school districts are adequately serving all children.

Some lawmakers also want to see King move aggressively to improve its oversight of student loan servicers, the contractors who collect student loan payments, to ensure that borrowers are treated fairly.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, criticized the department for leaving students exposed to fraud and “shady institutions.” She said she voted for King because he had already taken steps toward an overhaul.

Massachusetts senator Edward Markey also voted in favor of the nomination.

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