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John White’s Last Stand: Inside the Campaign to Bring Down Louisiana’s School Reform Champion

Photo Credit: Louisiana Department of Education

November 17, 2015

Talking Points

Ed Supe John White rode a pro-reform tide that lifted Louisiana’s public schools — but now the tide is turning

Can ed reformer John White survive as Louisiana’s schools chief? It's a question with national implications

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New Orleans, Louisiana
“I do not believe John White can stay as Superintendent of Education while I am Governor. And to the extent that I can control that, that will not happen. Because I do not find him to be honest and credible when he deals with the legislature and other members of the public in Louisiana.”
Those words, from John Bel Edwards, the man that polls say will likely win Louisiana’s gubernatorial runoff this Saturday, might come as a surprise to those who follow education policy in the Bayou State.
After all, by almost every measure, John White’s tenure as Louisiana’s state superintendent of education should be judged a success. The policies White has championed over the past four years have resulted in real academic gains for students, particularly for those from traditionally underserved backgrounds.
Last year, Louisiana’s four-year graduation rate hit an all-time high of 74.6 percent. This past spring, a record number of Louisiana students earned Advanced Placement test scores high enough to make them eligible for college credit. Plus, the number of African-American students earning a college-going ACT score has jumped 44% — from 5,202 to 7,287 students — since White assumed his post back in 2012.
With such results, one might expect that Edwards and others politicians across the state would be applauding White’s stated desire to remain on the job after Gov. Bobby Jindal leaves office at the end of the year.
Instead, White now finds himself fighting to stay on in Baton Rouge, thanks to an odd alliance of Tea Party politicians, teachers unions, and their supporters, who have waged an increasingly coordinated campaign to malign White’s character and ultimately remove him as state superintendent.
While White’s travails in many ways reflect the broader fight over the direction of public education nationally, Louisiana’s vanguard position in the education reform movement gives White’s precarious situation added significance. The big question in the minds of reformers both inside and outside of Louisiana is whether White and the policies he has championed will survive — and what that means for the reform movement as a whole.
A man and his moment
Needless to say, the political winds have shifted dramatically since White assumed Louisiana’s top education post back in January 2012, following a brief stint at the helm of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. He was Jindal’s hand-picked choice fresh off the Republican governor’s landslide reelection victory in which he trounced his nearest competitor by almost 48 points.
Moreover, the elections had returned a pro-reform majority to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which sets K-12 education policy for the state. The board immediately appointed White state superintendent by a vote of 9-1.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded the board’s decision, describing White as “a visionary leader,” while U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu called him, “a perfect fit for Louisiana as we seek to advance education in our state.” Fawning editorials and profiles of the photogenic 36-year-old education chief soon followed. In short, White found himself in a position that most state superintendents — or anyone else, for that matter — would envy.
But not everyone was enamored with White. The state’s two teachers unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) and Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), did little to hide their contempt for the state’s new superintendent.
A LFT press release on White’s appointment stated his selection “damaged the public perception of BESE, sullied the office of the superintendent…and demoralized the teacher corps.”
Likewise, LAE President Joyce Haynes blasted state board members for their decision and claimed “many qualified educators and administrators were disrespected when BESE declined to even take applications for the job.”
The unions had seen their influence and membership steadily decline over the years as state leaders embraced reforms and Republicans gained dominance in the once-solidly Democratic state. There was little they could do back in 2012 but loudly voice their dissent.
More broadly, education reform was in its ascendancy and White joined the ranks of high-profile education chiefs like Kevin Huffman in Tennessee, Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, and Tony Bennett in Indiana, who combined a sense of urgency with a willingness to upend the status quo and chart a new course for public schools. And change things they did, while perhaps underestimating the stiff resistance they would encounter from entrenched interests, particularly teachers unions.
As “U.S. News & World Report” recently noted, today, nearly all of them have been replaced (Huffman, Gist, and Bennett included), willingly or otherwise, amid the backlash against Common Core, standardized testing, and other reforms endorsed by the Obama Administration. All of them, that is, except John White.
White’s supporters attribute his longevity and success to an uncommon ability to unite stakeholders behind his vision.
“One of the things I learned from John was how to try to bring everyone together around a table to tackle a problem,” says Adam Hawf, who worked closely with White as an assistant superintendent at the Louisiana Department of Education. “He's good at getting people to lift their heads up and see the larger problem and how it impacts everyone.”
It was this skill that helped White win the support of BESE and the legislature for a series of politically daunting reforms, including a broad overhaul of teacher tenure laws, the expansion of options for families through charter schools and vouchers, the strengthening of accountability for schools and district administrators, and the launch of a statewide teacher evaluation system.
At the same time, White proved willing to adjust course and fine tune his reform agenda when necessary.
“Generally speaking, I think he's been very successful in how he relates to teachers and he is easily the most accessible superintendent we've had,” says Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, a 7,500-member professional organization established as an alternative to the unions.
“If you have a concern, you just take it to John and he listens and things can get changed,” Courville said.
White also saw the need for the broader education reform movement to shift its approach in the face of growing resistance.
“It is a risk when policy gains are paid more attention than thoughtful implementation,” White told the American Enterprise Institute in the fall of 2013. “The real risk is that in telling people to do a bunch of stuff, we won’t pay attention to the basic things good managers do to help people do it well.”
Common Core would eventually prove him right.
Friends become foes and enemies unite
On a sweltering Monday morning in August of last year, staffers at the Louisiana Department of Education arrived at work to find that the department’s website was inexplicably down.
They soon determined that the Department of Administration, which was in the midst of a bitter fight with the state Education Department over Common Core, failed to pay the site’s annual $280 domain fee. Soon after the news hit the media, the Department of Administration submitted payment, the website went back online, and a DOA spokesperson released a statement insisting the oversight was “not purposeful.”
Few political observers bought the excuse. To them it was clear the Jindal administration was sending a message to State Superintendent White: We can make life unpleasant if you refuse to jettison Common Core.
Jindal turned away from the Common Core around the time he decided to seek the Republican nomination for president. With the exception of former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio, the core has been denounced by all the GOP contenders. 
“Obviously, the key player in the campaign to discredit John White was the governor as carried out by his Commissioner of Administration,” says Brigitte Nieland, vice president for education and workforce development at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
The business alliance is the state’s most powerful lobbying group and has generally supported Common Core because it sees the connection between the more rigorous standards and a 21st century-ready workforce.
“Political ambition was involved and I think (Jindal) did irreparable damage and inflamed issues around what should have been purely education policy, on what’s best for kids,” Nieland said.
Jindal dropped out of the race Tuesday. His sudden switch from outspoken Common Core advocate to steadfast opponent of the standards earlier this year was not only a betrayal of his hand-picked superintendent, but it turned a losing battle waged by a small group of Tea Party legislators into an all-out war over the direction of the state’s education policy. Worse, it gave White’s critics on both ends of the political spectrum common cause to join forces and go on the offensive.
For the Tea Party right, the standards represented a blatant trampling of state and local rights by the federal government and repealing Common Core would represent a symbolic blow for Obama and his fellow Democrats. For the teacher union left, Common Core entailed a renewed commitment to standardized testing and the data-driven accountability policies they long despised. For them, stopping Common Core was a means of throwing the entire accountability regime —  from teacher evaluations to school grades — into disarray.
Both sides quickly went to work. Anti-Common Core legislators filed lawsuits to derail Common Core-aligned PARCC testing, along with dozens of bills aimed at everything from defunding the state school board to abolishing the Department of Education. Ethics complaints were registered against White, alleging conflicts of interest with pro-Common Core organizations. The teachers unions now joined Tea Party lawmakers in speaking out against the standards and began steering campaign contributions to the coffers of anti-Common Core legislators.
At the same time, Jindal’s Department of Administration put White in a bureaucratic straightjacket, requiring state education officials to seek DOA approval for any contract in excess of $2,000 while they conducted a detailed audit of the department’s existing contracts.
The intent, of course, was to create the impression of impropriety by White and the state Education Department, though as Nieland, from the business association, points out, “Throughout the procurement battles, they were never able to substantiate a single transgression. It’s clear they were chasing windmills.”
In spite of the pressure, White and the state school board that appointed him stood their ground and eventually prevailed, both in the courts and the legislature. Earlier this summer, Common Core opponents agreed to a legislative compromise that more-or-less left the standards in place while allowing them to save face.
Although White could rightfully declare victory, the fight left him weakened politically, under a lingering cloud of questions raised by critics about the rollout of the Common Core and the wisdom of test-based accountability, in general.
On the other hand, it energized his opponents who now smelled blood in the water and saw the upcoming statewide elections as an opportunity to rid themselves of their old nemesis.
A rival from Angola
West Feliciana Parish is not the sort of place you find yourself unless you have a reason to be there. For most outsiders, those reasons usually involve the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States, meaning they’ve likely either been convicted of a serious crime or are among the thousands who flock to the parish’s far northwestern corner each April and October to attend Angola’s prison rodeo, now in its 50th year.
In other words, West Feliciana rarely draws much attention, although that’s changed in the past few months thanks to the efforts of the parish’s superintendent, Hollis Milton.
In June, Milton was elected the president of the influential Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, the group representing school chiefs from around the state, and promptly went on the offensive against White. He criticized Louisiana’s rollout of Common Core, while dropping not-so-subtle hints that he might be interested in taking over White’s $275,000-a-year job in the process.
At a gathering of the Baton Rouge Press Club in August, Milton told reporters, “implementation was not done well,” and maintained that state education officials had failed to give districts proper guidance, saying “I know in many places the support was not there to do what they needed to do.” White vigorously disputed Milton’s characterization, insisting, “the fact of the matter is implementation worked.”
At the same time, Milton began a behind-the-scenes campaign to foment dissatisfaction among district superintendents by questioning White’s rationale for the delayed release of the state’s PARCC test results. He called on his counterparts statewide to join him in demanding the raw test scores, along with the corresponding PARCC test questions. Release of the questions would prevent the state from using them again in future rounds of testing.
In a Sept. 21 email to district superintendents, Milton made clear that his reason for requesting the raw test scores was to call the state’s accountability metrics into question.
“Receiving the raw data could help us deepen our understanding of a process that evaluates our students, our employees, our schools, and ultimately our job performance…The raw data could be provided unidentified to researchers that could help us understand the reliability and validity issues,” Milton wrote. “In Oklahoma, a researcher recognized the deep flaws in their accountability system and the department of education changed course in how they graded schools.”
Emails exchanged between Milton and White also illustrated the close relationship between the statewide superintendents’ group and the Louisiana School Boards Association, the group representing the local school boards. The association has long opposed the reforms championed by White and moves in lockstep with the state’s teachers unions.
The day after Milton outlined his plan for sharing the PARCC test score data with outside researchers, he added Scott Richard, who heads the school board association, and others to a contentious email exchange with White. They demanded that the state Education Department immediately release the raw test scores and questions. Although White eventually agreed to release the raw scores, he refused to budge on the issue of the test questions.
Still, the episode nevertheless succeeded in once again publicly raising the question of whether White had something to hide.
It ain’t just about counting votes
Meanwhile, folks on both sides of the education reform debate began organizing themselves for the Oct. 24 primary election, in which all eight elected seats on the pro-White Board of Elementary and Secondary Education were up for grabs.
A slate of candidates calling itself FlipBESE, which included some of White’s most vocal critics, formed with the aim of unseating his supporters on the state board. On the other side, groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, raised considerable resources in the hopes of retaining a pro-reform majority on the board.
In the last two weeks leading up to the election, a documentary criticizing White, produced by a former communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party named Mike Stagg, was broadcast in media markets across the state, although it’s unclear as-of-yet who paid for the airtime.
In addition, anti-Common Core legislators issued a statement claiming White had failed to live up to his end of the compromise agreed to earlier this spring. It was clear that both announcements had been timed to influence the outcome of the BESE elections.
However, when the votes were tallied on election night, pro-reform candidates had won six out of the eight elected seats on the board; the remaining two are headed for a runoff on Saturday.
On the other hand, the biggest surprise of the evening was the strong showing of John Bel Edwards, the Democratic candidate for governor who is strongly backed by the teachers unions, and has repeatedly said he would replace White if elected. Edwards took 40 percent of the vote, beating his main opponent, Republican Sen. David Vitter — once considered unbeatable — by 17 points. Vitter was seen as running a lackluster campaign and being tainted by scandal.
While the election of six pro-reform BESE members certainly gives White some breathing room, his future as state superintendent — as well as of the trajectory of Louisiana’s education reform effort — is anything but certain.
The next governor will get to appoint three of BESE’s 11 members, although eight votes are still needed to either hire or fire the state superintendent. Nevertheless, it’s unclear whether Edwards will be willing to back down from his pledge to get rid of White. As teachers union President Steve Monaghan ominously noted in a recent interview, even without the votes, Edwards could use his leverage to try and pressure BESE to cut White loose.
“There is the power of the budget and there is the power that the legislature has. They can make things unpleasant for BESE,” he said. “All of those things are fluid once we get past the election and the dust settles. It ain't just about counting votes on the board."
On the other hand, if it comes down to a fight, White has plenty of people in his corner who recognize what his loss would mean for the progress Louisiana has made in public education over the past four years.
“The breadth and depth of what he has done so far to improve educational outcomes for Louisiana children and the experts he has working on every aspect of the plan are impressive,” says state Rep. Nancy Landry, a reform supporter on the Louisiana House Education Committee. “If we lose him over a political fight, the children of our state will be the ones who suffer.”
Adam Hawf, White’s former deputy, agrees: “The risk that is that we become complacent, in that we start to feel like we've made enough progress and we don't need to be pushing ourselves as hard anymore.” He adds optimistically, “But I don’t think John is going anywhere. I could understand why he might want to move on to greener pastures, but he is as committed and focused on the job as he ever has been, and that’s saying a lot.”