White stepping down as Louisiana education chief
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — John White, who helped strengthen the role of charter schools, backed a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher program for private schools and oversaw overhauls of the state’s school accountability efforts, announced Wednesday that he is stepping down as Louisiana’s education superintendent.
He told state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members in a letter that he will leave the job March 11. He did not state his reasons. The board said a search for his replacement would begin immediately and the process will be discussed at an upcoming meeting.
White can point to numerous improvements made during his eight years as education chief, including improved graduation rates and better performance on college preparation tests.
“Our work together has been focused on causes critical not just to the future of schooling but also to the future well-being of our state and nation,” White said in his letter, which outlined numerous policies he took pride in, including increased funding for early childhood care and education and strengthening of career and technical education.
His tenure was also marked by a rocky relationship with teacher unions and Gov. John Bel Edwards. And the state continues to lag others in nationwide education rankings.
Still, his departure comes as his job seemed secure, following the election last year of a slate of state education board members who were backed by the state’s business lobby, which was supportive of White.
Although he didn’t discuss his future, The Advocate reported in April that he had quietly co-founded a national nonprofit group, Propel America, aimed at connecting low-income high school graduates with solid jobs.
“Though we have not always seen eye to eye, I appreciate John White’s service to our state,” Edwards said in a news release noting White’s support for a teachers’ pay raise Edwards had fought for and for increases in funding of schools and early childhood education.
White has been education superintendent since 2012 but he had been working on a month-to-month basis since 2016. While he had the support of a majority of the 11-member state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, he lacked the two-thirds majority needed to get a new contract.
With eight business-backed members of the 11-member board elected in 2019 and set to take office this month, White’s job appeared safe.
White first came to the state in 2011 to head the Recovery School District, the state agency that takes over failing schools from local districts. Born in controversy, the RSD became the subject of more contention after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. After catastrophic flooding shut down New Orleans public schools, the Legislature enabled the RSD to take over most of the schools in the long-troubled city school system. The RSD began transforming all of the schools into charter schools — run by independent charter organizations with a great deal of autonomy from elected officials.
White forged ahead with the chartering of almost all New Orleans schools as RSD head and state superintendent. The schools eventually were returned to local control but under laws designed to assure the charter system would stay in place.
White’s support for charters and tuition vouchers for private schools put him at odds with teacher unions and others in the education establishment. He also oversaw the continuation, and periodic overhauls, of the student-performance-based school accountability system that includes letter grades for schools — and the continued possibility of state takeovers of those that continue to fail after years of intervention.
A former New York City schools leader, White could, early on, boast bipartisan backing. He was praised by Arne Duncan, then U.S. Secretary of Education under Democratic President Barack Obama. He was also strongly supported at the state level by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.
White backed and lobbied for Jindal’s education initiatives including vouchers and changes to longstanding teacher tenure policy. But the relationship between the two men fractured in later years.
More recently, White has been at odds with the positions of Edwards, who begins a second term as governor next week. The husband of a school teacher, Edwards was long aligned with traditional public school organizations that have bristled at White’s support for charters, vouchers and policies regarding teacher job security.
Associated Press Writer Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this story.