74 Interview: Louisiana Schools Chief John White on ESSA, School Closures and Local Control in NOLA

Louisiana Department of Education
See previous 74 interviews: Former Gov. Jeb Bush, tennis great and charter supporter Andre Agassi, and current U.S. senator and education committee chairman Lamar Alexander. Full archive here.
In an extended interview conducted in the weeks leading up to the election, John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, discussed his ambitious — and often controversial — agenda for the state’s schools. White talked about why he supports closing ineffective schools, how he hopes to implement the new federal ESSA law, and what he makes of research showing that, to date, vouchers in Louisiana have harmed, rather than helped, student achievement.
Originally appointed with the support of former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal — though the two would later clash over Common Core — White briefly discussed his relationship with Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was elected last year and sharply criticized White on the campaign trail, saying he would try to oust him if elected. That hasn’t come to pass, however, as White maintains support from Louisiana’s Board of Education.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
The 74: Let’s start by talking about the recent Tulane study on school closures. Why do you think there were such positive results in New Orleans but negative results in Baton Rouge?
John White: You have to think about those two efforts in context, going back to almost 10 years ago, and in New Orleans, there was a state-led intervention that was coupled with a very intentional chartering effort and a very intentional development of educator talent within the city. In Baton Rouge, it was a hodgepodge of district-led and some state-led interventions, but neither, at the time of their inception, was part of a comprehensive plan in the way that New Orleans was enacted.
I think we’ve learned from those mistakes, and the state and the district have commenced a much more intentional chartering effort in Baton Rouge in recent years, that are not covered in that study, but there’s no question that the differentiating factor in this research and in others is, ‘Do you have a comprehensive plan for how to develop good schools?’ If you do, you’re likely to have good results, and if you don’t, you’re not.
I read your piece in The Daily Beast recently calling for closing “failing schools,” but one concern that I’ve heard persistently is that shutting down neighborhood schools is a loss of a community institution, and it often means a dismissal of teachers — and in places like New Orleans, often black teachers. Do those concerns resonate with you at all?
I think it’s important to define what we mean by “closing failing schools.” In New York, we did not outright shut down school buildings. We gradually transitioned the management of old schools out, while we gradually transitioned the management of new schools in — preserving the building, preserving important dimensions of the school, like programming, athletics and other things. It’s not, in the way a lay reader might read those terms, it’s really not the closing of a facility, nor has it been in New Orleans for the most part.
This study did differentiate effectively between the transformation and the takeover of a school versus the outright shutting down of a school building. That’s an important distinction. Obviously, one of them is more invasive than the other, and you’re always, of course, weighing side effects. As (former NYC schools chancellor) Joel Klein’s and my piece in the Daily Beast articulated, these were not convenient strategies, they were not comfortable, and they had costs. I think it’s important to acknowledge there are costs. The question is, can you mitigate the costs and can you weigh the costs against the benefits? Ultimately, we think if done well, the benefits outweigh the costs, and also that the costs can be managed.
We had a provision with the United Federation of Teachers in New York City that allowed for a process of considering the hiring of the employees who were in that school building before. That’s a way of mitigating costs. In New Orleans, we have a very thoughtful process for evaluating community in the decisionmaking and how we transition a school from one manager to another manager. That’s mitigating a potential cost.
There’s no right or wrong answer. There are good ways of doing things and bad ways of doing things, and there are always costs whether you make a decision or whether you don’t make a decision. There’s always a cost. The question is, does the cost outweigh the benefit, and have you done everything you need to to mitigate the costs?
In the long run, if you have a good plan and create good new schools, there is a greater cost in not availing low-income children and their families of those schools than there is in dramatic intervention to create those schools.
Let me ask about the return of the New Orleans Recovery School District to local control. How’s that going so far, from your perspective?
What we’re really doing under our state law is two things: First, we’re replacing one charter authorizer with another. The term “local control” means as many things as there are people who use it. In policy, what is happening is that one authorizer, the state — which authorizes about two thirds of the schools — is giving the charter-authorizing authority to another authorizer, the local parish school system, which also by the way is already in New Orleans a charter authorizer, and authorizes about a third of the schools already.
That process is already happening, and this law accelerates it. That’s a very different thing from a return to government control of the schools. These schools remain overseen by nonprofit entities; they remain accountable to the state’s accountability system; they are not managed by a school board at a local level.
So what has that really achieved that is unique across the country? It means that now you have, out of 14,000 school boards across the country, one that has codified in state law its commitment to not having restrictive and oftentime segregationist housing pattern zones for enrollment. It means you have a school system that has committed to having the superintendent, the professional educator in charge of the system, making authorizing decisions — not the political body making authorizing decisions. It means a system where every school can be its own local education agency, thus receiving some federal funds. It means a system that, under the law, sends 98 cents on the dollar directly to the schoolhouse door.
That is a powerful policy to put in place, and it should be something that, as people across the country consider, under ESSA, particular governance reforms, they look to and say there is one way of rationalizing the desire for local decisionmaking on one hand but the desire for innovation in how districts do their business on the other hand.
Is it going well? Yes. It’s going well to a point where I tell people that the least of my concerns about education in New Orleans has to do with governance and policy right now. We have bigger challenges that are more endemic to educating our kids and preparing them for life after they leave our high schools. The governance work is going well, but I do think it’s important for people to wrap their heads around what a significant shift in innovation and in policy this is.
One thing you mentioned in that answer was “segregationist housing patterns,” but as you know the NAACP recently called for a moratorium on charter schools, and one of the reasons it cited was that charter schools might cause an increase in segregation. I think there is some empirical evidence, at least in some places — I’m thinking of North Carolina especially — that charter schools have led to greater segregation by race and income. Is that a concern that you have at all?
Schools are regulated; both district schools and charter schools are regulated. In many states like ours, private schools are regulated. One of the most important issues as to how they’re regulated are admissions. That can be done in a way that is inclusionary in nature or exclusionary in nature — it has nothing to do with whether it’s a charter school, a district school or even a private school. It has to do with how the regulator has chosen to regulate admissions.
In our city in New Orleans, we have chosen to provide any parent in the city the opportunity to seek admission to any school. Our city, like many, is largely — not entirely, but largely — divided by race and class in terms of where people live. If we were to have, as regulators, drawn enrollment boundaries for schools around the neighborhoods in which people live, by de facto, not with any intention of laying blame on anybody, but by de facto situation, you would be institutionalizing the segregated circumstance. That could be true with district schools; that could be true with charter schools. It’s not about district versus charter. It’s about whether your regulations regarding admissions and enrollment engender isolation and exclusion or whether they engender diversity.
Let me ask you about recent research on Louisiana’s school voucher program, showing that students who received vouchers saw big test-score drops. What do you make of those findings, and what is the state doing going forward to improve the outcomes for students who receive vouchers?
“Vouchers” is another word that is used as if it’s a common thing from one place to the next, but oftentimes it bears little resemblance from one place to the next. In our state, if you take the public money, you take the public test. We have an accountability index for non-public schools that is the same as the accountability index for public schools. We should be agnostic as to the labels and sectors of schools, and we should be hawks when it comes to the academic achievement and growth made by students in schools.
We have a parallel system for charter schools, district schools and non-public schools in terms of how we rate the performance of those schools. If you don’t meet a minimum threshold as a non-public school one year, you don’t take new students the next year in our program. That is a very stringent regime for schools of any variety that have never been exposed to it before. It’s natural, and now there’s plenty of research to indicate that under such regimes, not just private schools but public schools take time to adjust.
The key question is, in the long run, are these schools viable options for families, especially low-income families? And the research has yet to be determined on that. But it’s a long-term question, and researchers should take a long-term approach.
Speaking of the accountability system, let’s talk about ESSA. Where is Louisiana at in thinking about and implementing a new accountability system under ESSA?
When it looked like this law was going to pass, we started analyzing student data, thinking about what’s been working in our state and what hasn’t been. We shared findings through a series of statewide meetings and discussions with civil rights leaders, educators and community members. We came away really seeing that there are five critical challenges that we need to take on in our state as part of this process.
First, at a fundamental level, what we call an “A” grade for schools in our state is not itself predictive of workforce and higher-education readiness.
Second, even if you do raise expectations to meet that benchmark, you still have students who are not participating in the progress, and you need to have an accountability system as well as a support system that’s sensitive to the needs of kids who are apt to be left out at that greater level of ambition.
Third, we know that there are experiences that aren’t measured by standardized tests that ready students for life after high school, and honoring schools and supporting schools and doing those things without distracting from literacy and numeracy are important. Ensuring that students in low-income communities who oftentimes don’t have access to those types of experiences are given them — these need to be priorities in our system.
Fourth, we still have a large number of schools that are performing at levels that by any measure are not acceptable and have been at this level for multiple years. These are schools that are truly stuck in a cycle of underperformance, and we have to figure out something different from what we’re doing today to help them remedy that.
Fifth, everything we’re doing, all the problems that we’re talking about here, are in the context of a teaching profession that is being outcompeted by other industries and that is having increasing levels of strain put on it. Strengthening the profession, so that there is a viable pipeline for identifying, recruiting and keeping strong educators in our profession, in a very, very competitive global environment, is just as critical as anything else.
We identified those five things, and we see the accountability system as well as how we make grants and how we provide support — the question is not what should your accountability system be. The question is how does your accountability system assist schools in resolving those challenges with students.
We’ve put out, after all of those meetings, a draft framework for public reaction. I’m taking that framework out on the road next week for another series of public meetings across the state. We’ll just keep drafting and drafting and drafting and getting more feedback and more feedback and more feedback, until we feel like all of the facts have been worked through. And whether there’s a consensus proposal or not, it’s important that everything be explainable, be rationalized and be pressure-tested and be backed by evidence.
What’s your relationship been like with Gov. Edwards since he took office?
Gov. Edwards has an abiding concern with education. He was a longtime education committee member, and I’ve worked with him when he was a state representative. He has wanted to expand dropout-recovery programs in our state in the time since he’s become governor, and our agency has worked to support that objective. He’s become the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which is an organization that I’ve got a lot of respect for and I’ve been a part of, so we’re able to work together in that venue as well.
While it’s well documented that we don’t agree on every issue, he is somebody with an abiding concern with education, and I think that will have a very positive effect on the system in the long run.
Do you see yourself and the governor as fairly aligned in how to implement ESSA going forward? And if there are some major differences, what are they?
I really don’t know. We’ve not had that conversation. I know he has commissioned through an executive order a body of individuals who he named to a commission, and that commission has begun to meet and will be making recommendations to him. He also will have the ability to consult and weigh in on that plan, so when the time is right, I’m sure he’ll do so.
Anything you wanted to add?
The only thing you didn’t cover that we’re really, really working on is early-childhood and then post-secondary stuff.
On early childhood, both of the parties kind of have it wrong. I mean, the Democrats want to create new programs that are financially challenging and Republicans are right to say that we need to make the most of the money that we have. On the other hand, too often people on the other side don’t pay enough attention to the issue to begin with. We have an unfortunate political divide where nobody is stepping in the middle to find a way forward that is both fiscally prudent and recognizes the very obvious need for a child-care system and a pre-kindergarten system that is a much better one and a more available one than the one that we have today.
The answer, I think, is to start therefore with defining what is quality and is there reasonable access, and in most cases we will find that quality is inconsistent and that access is inconsistent. The question for regulators — that is, government — is not just how many seats there are — that’s important, and I applaud those states that have made more significant investments in early childhood over the last couple years, and I wish we were one of them — but also do you have a plan to measure quality, to develop quality, and to provide access to quality programs to parents? Whether you’re talking about Head Start, child care, private pre-K, or public pre-K, that plan must, by necessity, because we just don’t have the choice, acknowledge all of those centers.
In Louisiana, we have a system where every program that takes a public dollar — whether it’s a private pre-K, a public pre-K, a child care or Head Start — is evaluated on a common accountability system, where that accountability system is based on an instrument called the CLASS model, gets ratings that are transparently conveyed to parents. Those ratings are used in a unified-enrollment process that every county or parish in our state uses across all types of programs. And where the funding is relatively equal across those program types, so that teachers can meet minimum standards of preparation as well. We have huge disparities, in most parts of the country, between the educator preparation levels of pre-kindergarten teachers versus child-care teachers, for example, and only when you establish some level of parity in funding are you going to eradicate that gap. We’ve taken that stride as well.
I know obviously you’re in Louisiana now, but you used to work in New York City. Have you been following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Pre-K for All program, and do you see that as a model or as something that has flaws?
I’m not really close enough to it to make very precise judgments about the day-to-day work in the schools. I would say simply that while I disagree with Mayor de Blasio on many, many education policies, I do applaud the focus that he’s generated around the country on early-childhood access, and I also applaud the New York City Department of Education in their efforts to ensure that curriculum and measurable quality are parts of the plan. The reporters talk mostly about the numbers, but I applaud the fact that they have not compromised on defining quality, as they’ve aspired toward greater scale. I think there is a lot not to like about the de Blasio administration’s approach to education policy, but this is an area that I commend them for addressing with such ambition.

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