The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education election has basically come down to this question: Will you or won’t you support John White as the next superintendent of education?
Choosing the next leader will be one of the first items of business for the newly elected board. Any candidate will need support from eight of the 11 members. And that single impending decision has galvanized forces on both sides of White, bringing in considerable financial and political involvement in the normally sleepy races.
On one side is Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby’s Alliance for Better Classrooms, financed in part by a $100,000 donation from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On the other is the Coalition for Public Education, an alliance of teacher organizations, superintendents and school boards, some of whom feel education reform in Louisiana is simply a plot to eliminate public education altogether. The election is Nov. 19.
Feelings about the current superintendent of the Recovery School District already run strong, even though his time in Louisiana has been short—just five months.
Supporters say he’s smart, passionate and well qualified for the job. Critics contend he’s too young (35), is short on classroom experience (he taught for Teach For America in New Jersey and Chicago) and long on political connections (including Education Secretary Arne Duncan), and isn’t from Louisiana.
White himself isn’t saying whether he wants the job.
“If the BESE board were to ask me to serve as the state superintendent, that’s something I would consider,” he says. “But my head is down, my team’s head is down, focused entirely on the nearly 100 schools in the Recovery School District.”
He is, however, clearly frustrated by those who say he can’t do the job.
“We have to get out of this mentality, as every other successful American enterprise has, that somehow this is about your graduate degrees or your credentials or this and that, and your age least of all,” White says. “This has got to be about outcomes. We all have a role to play in this. If my role happens to be this, great. If it’s another role, fine. I want to play a role serving kids, as do so many other people. It’s about finding the right person for the right role.”
One thing is certain: Since taking over as superintendent of the RSD in May, White has proven himself to be no Paul Pastorek.
And that’s key, because the former superintendent—while passionate about improving educational opportunities for all children—managed to alienate teachers, administrators and school boards alike in his quest for reform.
White and Pastorek are very similar ideologically: White is very clear that school choice is an important aspect of reform. But those who have worked with him through the RSD say that—unlike Pastorek—he seems much more interested in empowering teachers and winning consensus on major decisions.
East Baton Rouge Parish School Board President Barbara Freiberg lobbied White to get some schools in the RSD returned to the local system. Though she wasn’t successful, she has nothing but praise for White’s handling of the situation.
She says that White is “just as driven” as Pastorek and will respond to her emails at 2 a.m., but he appears to be better at working with school officials.
“In all of my dealings with John, I have found him to be an excellent education leader,” she says. “I attended a lot of the forums he’s had for the RSD. I have worked with him in attempting to get some schools back in EBR. I wasn’t successful in those attempts, but I think he’s doing a great job with the RSD. I hope they can find someone as capable as he is if he becomes the state superintendent to fill his job there.”
Though she admired and liked Pastorek, she admits that White—or whoever takes over as the next superintendent—will have to mend a lot of fences.
“There are a lot of school officials and school teachers who have felt a little disenfranchised, and he needs to show his concern for teachers, for principals, for superintendents throughout this state—not just the RSD,” Freiberg says. “Paul Pastorek was a true visionary. I really liked Paul. But Paul tended to emphasize RSD and charters to the exclusion of the majority of schools in this state, and there has to be a focus on that, on the schools that are not in the RSD and the schools that are not charter schools.
“The schools that are in most of the districts are what you would call your typical public school. He seems to really be reaching out to work with them, and I think that’s because he knows Paul didn’t care whether you worked with him or not. I think John is working to build those public relations.”
White’s résumé is dotted with bullet points that make critics of the charter school movement cringe.
Three years teaching English in Jersey City, N.J. Three years as the head of Teach For America’s Chicago office. Five years working with controversial New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein. A 2010 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month training program for urban school leaders.
When White joined the New York City Department of Education in 2006, he quickly took charge of a controversial effort to close underperforming schools and open new ones.
He soon rose to the rank of deputy chancellor, where he negotiated with the city’s teachers unions and developed a process for teacher evaluations. Louisiana is working on its own system to link teacher evaluations in part with student performance.
Louisiana Association of Educators Executive Director Michael Walker-Jones has said White lacks the qualifications and certification required of a local superintendent in Louisiana.
“Without that certification,” he has asked, “how could he lead the people he would be purporting to lead?”
Buddy Mincey Jr., a school board member in Livingston Parish, recently wrote a letter to a local newspaper expressing the sentiment of many as to the importance of the BESE elections.
“Why is this election so important?” he wrote. “As a school board member of Livingston Parish, I can attest to the hardships our school system has endured as a result of BESE regulations, budget cuts and unfunded mandates. There is a movement in our state to promote charter schools and voucher programs at the expense of the public school systems. Our public schools have been fighting for their lives.”
The fact that Duncan reportedly contacted BESE members to push for White’s selection as interim state superintendent also hasn’t gone over well with critics.
In his first 100 days in office as RSD superintendent, White convened four task-force committees comprised of educators, parents, community leaders and students. Eight leaders in the community were selected to serve as co-chairs of the groups, which have gathered input through public meetings, comment cards, online surveys and other means. From that input, his staff developed a strategic plan entitled “What Will It Take?”
He has also restructured his staff to achieve the goals laid out in the plan as well as create a more efficient means for serving students. He cut central office positions by 35%.
When he speaks of what Louisiana needs in its next superintendent, he talks about empowering teachers and parents alike.
“First of all, it’s got to start with high standards, and achieving accountability for those standards,” he says. “But then you’ve got to make sure the people closest to kids are empowered to figure out the best way they know how to get after it. That means teachers need to be empowered; that means parents need to be empowered to choose their schools. If you take that step, that mix of accountability and empowerment, you will see results.”
But he also insists that collaboration is equally important to those results.
“I think you can make change while at the same time being willing to do it together. That means working with school districts, that means working with schools and, of course, that means working with teachers,” White says. “Teachers are the ones who are out there on the front lines making change. I know that because I have been a public school teacher. I spent three years in the classroom and five years coaching teachers in the classroom. So I know the day-to-day realities. We can push each other while at the same time wanting each other to succeed.”
Though his credentials will likely continue to be a part of the debate when it comes time to choose Louisiana’s next top leader, White says he has an important advantage to bring to the table: a record of success.
“I was the No. 2 leader in the nation’s largest school system—a system with more than 1 million kids,” he says. “While there, we increased the graduation rate in New York City from 48% to 65%, which means literally tens of thousands of kids graduated who were unlikely to have graduated before. But we did it in a way that empowered educators and empowered parents to choose their schools.”