Acting secretary of education is unfazed by politics

The new acting secretary of education, Dr. John King Jr., steps into a role his predecessor, Arne Duncan, left deep in controversy. With support for Common Core waning and student debt skyrocketing, King faces a series of challenges.

King can already speak softly, but in his new role, he may also need to carry a big stick, reports "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell.

In 2010, King scored New York state a $700 million federal grant. Controversy followed when, as New York's education commissioner, he rolled out Common Core standards.

Parents and teachers shouted him off the stage at a PTA meeting in 2013.

"You ended up cancelling further meetings like that?" O'Donnell asked.

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"Well, we restructured them. So that meeting got to a place where it just wasn't productive. Folks were screaming and yelling, it was hard to have a real conversation," King said in an exclusive interview with "CBS This Morning."

"Why were people screaming and yelling?" O'Donnell asked.

"Some of it was the politics of the moment... Some of it was misunderstandings that folks have," King said.

Critics have said they do not need the federal government delivering standards in their states.

"It's important that folks realize that the standards are a matter of state policymaking," King said. "And what we've said...is that states need to have standards that push towards college and career readiness."

At first, 46 states adopted Common Core standards. Three states have since dropped them, and 19 more have put them under review. King will have to continue the fight for uniform standards without overstepping the bounds of his federal role.

"You went from this school to becoming the first African-American education commissioner, the first Puerto Rican education commissioner of New York. What does that mean to you?" O'Donnell asked.

"I think it's a testament to what's possible if students have the right opportunities," King said. "Teachers could've looked at me and said, 'You know, here's a African-American/Latino student, difficult family situation. What chance does he have?' And they could've given up on me. But they didn't."

The teachers King called "life-saving" taught at P.S. 276 in Brooklyn, which CBS News visited with King.

"My mom also worked here and was a guidance counselor here. And so it felt like home," King said. "And then my mom passed away when I was in fourth grade, and school took on a different role in my life."

He was just eight years old when he lost his mother and 12 when he lost his father, who was once the highest-ranking African-American educator in the country, and who later suffered from undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease.

"I can recall one night -- he woke me up at, like, two in the morning, said it was time to go to school," King said. "And I can remember holding onto the banister of the staircase at my house saying, 'Daddy, daddy, it's not time to go to school. It's not time to go to school. It's the middle of the night.' And he didn't understand, I didn't know what was wrong. So that was a very, very difficult period. And, you know, it made school even that much more important. Because school was the place where I could get beyond that."

King went on to earn four Ivy league degrees and co-found one of Boston's best charter schools. He married and had two children and, now at 41, will become one of the youngest cabinet secretaries in history.

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"Is there a part of you that wants to just sort of shout and say, 'Come on, people. We need standards'?" O'Donnell asked.

"Well, look: if you look at where we are relative to our international competitors, we were once first in the world in the portion of our population that had college degrees. Today we're 13th," King said.

King said it's hard to look at the fall in ranking and not see an education crisis.

"The good news is, I do think there are lots of signs of progress. ...And as the country goes through a presidential election, we've gotta ask every candidate... 'What are they going to do to raise graduation rates? What are they going to do to make sure more students graduate from college?'" King said.

King will be in office for just over a year, one that will be defined by a presidential race where Republican candidates have condemned Common Core.

He isn't exactly fazed.

"Hard and ambitious things come with contentious politics. And the question is, are we moving towards the goal of all of our students having access to a quality education?" King said. "Are we moving towards the goal of all of our students having the kinds of life-saving experiences that I had here at P.S. 276? And if we're doing that, if there are politics that come with that, so be it."