A conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Education John King

Former U.S. Secretary of Education, John King (center), is interviewed by Mark Ginsberg (left), dean of Mason's College of Education and Human Development, and Mason associate professor Spiros Protopsaltis. Photo by Damian Cristodero.

By the time John King was 12 years old, he had lost both his parents to illness.

While that made life at home “scary and unpredictable, confusing and tough,” he said, he found the halls of P.S. 276 in Canarsie, N.Y., and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island “amazing, compelling and interesting.”

“It was a safe and nurturing place,” King said of school. “I could be dead or in prison today if it weren’t for the teachers who saved my life.”

With that as his foundation, King, the president and CEO of The Education Trust who was U.S. Secretary of Education from 2016 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama, has dedicated his life to preparing children for success through education.

He was the featured speaker at this year’s College of Education and Human Development PhD Colloquium at the Johnson Center Cinema on George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus on Dec. 8.

"I have great respect for John King and have followed his work for many years," said Mark Ginsberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Development. "To get to hear from him on a very personal level and in a more intimate setting, and to be able to talk with him, will deepen our understanding and push our thinking. It's a great opportunity for our students and alumni, as well as my CEHD faculty colleagues."

King’s message was simple.

“It is important that we work to achieve equality in education,” said the Takoma Park, Md., resident, whose organization seeks to close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from preschool through college. “I believe that every student, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender identity, zip code or language spoken at home, deserves access to an excellent education.”

“Right now, in this moment in our country,” King said, “the stakes have never been higher to protect our most vulnerable students, especially students of color and those from low-income families.”

Mason associate professor Spiros Protopsaltis was deputy assistant secretary for higher education and student financial aid under King and, with Ginsberg, interviewed King on stage.

King said an important goal is achieving equality in education for underserved students. Photo by Damian Cristodero

Of his former boss, Protopsaltis said, “He’s someone who is both very knowledgeable and passionate about these issues, and speaks to them from the mind and the heart. He’s one of the few people who has experience as both a practitioner and policymaker, and understands the entire education pipeline from cradle through career.”

For King, a former high school social studies teacher and middle school principal, and New York State’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2015, the most pressing issue is overcoming the obstacles to a quality education faced by underserved students.

Those groups continually have less access to quality pre-K programs, effective teachers, diverse educators, challenging courses, and college- and career-ready assignments, King said.

“We’ve got to dedicate ourselves to the urgent work of offering rich educational experiences to all students that inspire curiosity and a love of learning while preparing them for success in college, careers, and beyond,” he said. “That means ensuring students encounter their schools as safe, nurturing, joyful places to learn and grow.”

Much like King did while growing up in New York City.