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U.S. Senate rises to the occasion by approving John B. King Jr. as education secretary

A bickering U.S. Senate that cannot agree upon much these days has done something right in confirming John B. King Jr. as U.S. education secretary.

The benefits to Buffalo should be enormous given the particular attention King paid to the city’s underperforming school district during his time as state education commissioner, a position he held from 2011 until late 2014 when he was recruited to become the nation’s acting deputy secretary of education. He became acting secretary when his predecessor, Arne Duncan, stepped down at the end of 2015.

King zeroed in on the failing school system and worked tirelessly to implement change here and throughout the state. Those efforts received mixed reviews, though not by this page, which fully supported him in the campaign to improve academic outcomes through the much-maligned Common Core Learning Standards. The program’s rollout and concerns over a teacher evaluation system could have been better addressed. But that does not change the shared goal.

King, 41, with a compelling story of his own that recounts being orphaned and, as he has described, rescued by New York City public school teachers, is committed to delivering quality education to all children. He tolerates no excuses. It is among the many characteristics that make him supremely qualified to take on the top post.

King’s confirmation might have gone unnoticed in a raucous presidential election campaign season during which President Obama had to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. His choice, Merrick Garland, is facing pushback from Republican senators who argue that the appointment should be made by the next president.

Sadly, that kind of obstruction is more common these days than the good sense shown in this vote. Indeed, given the political upheaval on display in the Republican presidential primaries, few would have imagined King’s survival, although the vote was narrow at 49-40.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., made the case for King. Alexander is the chairman of the Education Committee and previously served as an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. The senator has an intimate knowledge of the job and understands the urgent need to fill it. He argued that the Education Department needs a leader who can be held liable as the nation embarks on a new initiative.

Congress passed a bipartisan education law that was signed by Obama in December. The Every Student Succeeds Act is intended to revamp the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. It redirects much authority over public schools from the federal level and places it more in the hands of states and school districts.

During his confirmation hearing last month, King pledged to uphold the spirit of that change to local control. He also made clear the federal government’s continuing critical role in making sure that states and school districts follow through on their obligation to adequately serve all children, especially the disadvantaged.

It is a show of passion familiar to those in Buffalo.