BESE: Starting Tomorrow, Elections Have Consequences, Though The Teachers’ Unions Are Howling

The big event in Louisiana politics tomorrow will be the scheduled vote at the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on whether to bump John White, now the head of the Recovery School District, up to the top job as Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education.

White’s going to win that vote and get the job. There are enough votes on BESE to lock down the hire.

Naturally, though, it won’t happen without much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the state’s educational establishment.

For example, teacher union boss Joyce Haynes of the Louisiana Association of Educators put out a blistering statement today demanding a national search for a state superintendent of schools…

“Now is our chance to get it right,” said LAE President Joyce Haynes. “I, along with every other dedicated teacher in this state, would like to ask BESE members to go beyond the minimum qualifications and seek an individual who has a proven track record of communicating with other education professionals, as well as the public. We need someone in this position who shares our belief that public schools are a sacred trust, open to all and governed locally by elected representatives from the respective communities.”

Translation: we demand that BESE include us in the hiring process and accept our veto of any candidates who we decree don’t meet our standard of a “proven track record of communicating with other education professionals.” And further, we also demand that a new superintendent be hired who is committed to leaving the public schools exactly as they are in Louisiana, because the current business model which has our kids coming in 49th out of 50 states in educational outcomes is a “sacred trust.”

If anybody thinks that interpretation of the statement from Miz Haynes, obviously still sore from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s having ruined her Christmas, is deficient, the comments are available for your use.

But there is more. Miz Haynes thinks Louisiana’s local school systems ought to be able to produce an inside candidate – like, for example, one who looks more like she does.

“To forgo a rigorous search and focus on one name is careless. This shows a lack of interest on the part of BESE to provide an equal opportunity for women and minorities who are qualified to compete for the position,” she said. “Surely the paramount importance of selecting the superintendent who will lead the state’s 70 school districts deserves no less than a well-planned process and shared examination.”

Awesome how she’s taking a shot at the fact John White is a white John, no? Of course there’s a race and gender card to be played here!

And then there’s this…

Educators across the state agree with Haynes and feel as though the final decision should be made in a very thoughtful manner and should include input from the public and education community stakeholders. The LAE and members of the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education have frequently expressed the importance of Louisiana’s next education superintendent being an education professional with a proven, long-term track record of real experience specific to our state. The groups agree that public school educators and politicians should strive to model behavior which offers hope that preparation, hard work, academic achievement, and opportunity can lead to success in a competitive learning environment.

That’s a load of babble, of course, but we include it to note that while Haynes screams about the necessity of a wider search – and particularly she says she wants a statewide search, rather than a national one, which is interesting in itself – she also tailors the criteria she suggests BESE use in this search specifically to weed White out.

Meaning that when she says the next superintendent has to be an education professional – otherwise known as a teacher or administrator – with a “proven, long-term track record of real experience specific to our state” she’s trying to say that White’s experience doesn’t count.

What’s White’s experience? Judge for yourself if he has a clue what the issues in Louisiana education might be. Right out of college he joined Teach For America, which placed him in a disaster of a public school in Jersey City, New Jersey…

TFA sent White to Jersey City, to 3,000-student Dickinson High School, overlooking the Holland Tunnel, where he taught English for three years and learned that “there are a lot of challenges and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The school itself was not organized to serve every child. It’s a huge school. Kids come and go. They oftentimes come and go without ever having formed a strong relationship with the adults who are supposed to serve them.” White met “heroic educators who were saving lives,” and he saw quickly “what an impact one teacher could make, and I thought, what an extraordinary thing it would be if we started creating groups of teachers and even schools and school systems that were doing this kind of thing.”

He gives TFA credit for “keeping me in the mission…. We all know each other,” he says of fellow alums like Michelle Rhee (Washington, D.C.’s superintendent at age 38) and Cami Anderson (who took over Newark’s troubled district at age 39), and “those are people who have fueled my commitment just as I hope that I fuel theirs.” After his teaching stint, White went to work for TFA in its New Jersey region coaching and mentoring the new recruits. He was then sent to Chicago to do the same thing. While there he met Arne Duncan. “I count Arne as a friend and advisor and mentor,” he says. “And he once told me, ‘If you want to lead and you want to lead change, just go find a place where it’s happening. Go find a school system where it’s happening and go do it.’”

And then White got another gig, this time in the Big Apple, before landing in Louisiana to run the charter-school-filled Recovery School District…

That was 2006 and the happening place was New York City, where Joel Klein was four years into remaking the nation’s largest public school system. Klein immediately offered White a job on his portfolio planning team, which meant leading the process of closing bad schools and creating new ones, one of the bull’s-eye issues in the massive system’s turnaround efforts. “I was part of the team that was catalyzing change at a very rapid pace,” says White.

Several years later, when Pastorek called and invited him to audition to take over for veteran reform educator Paul Vallas, who was bound for the private sector, White was running the district’s Division of Talent, Labor and Innovation. One of the most important parts of the job was overseeing the Innovation Zone, a network of nearly 100 New York City schools focused on using technology as a catalyst to personalize education. “We wanted to organize schools around the needs of individual kids,” he says. “And I want to emphasize that last point. I think that it’s a question of providing an individual education for each child, which doesn’t mean education isolation, but one where literally every child is having a program daily that is tailored to his or her specific needs.”

This guy was the deputy superintendent of schools in New York City and he now runs the state’s Recovery School District, which is the most prominent in Louisiana – and Haynes is attempting to say that he’s not qualified for the job he’s up for now. Why? Because he taught school in Jersey City and not New Orleans? Is there really all that much of a difference?

One would surmise what’s really going on here isn’t that White wasn’t a teacher in Louisiana of long-standing but rather that in New York he was on the front lines of the teachers’ union wars in New York as Joel Klein’s deputy…

Mr. White has navigated difficult education politics before in stints in New Jersey and Chicago, where he ran TFA’s operations, and most of all during New York’s “Joel and Randi wars”—between Mr. Klein and the city’s powerful teachers union boss Randi Weingarten. He was at the center of pitched battles over the city’s plans to co-locate charters at existing public schools in Harlem.

New York taught him “mainly that the school is the unit that matters,” Mr. White says, “and that great schools often exist in spite of unsupportive, often intrusive, school district offices.” Traditional government agencies find it hard to muster “the intensive strategic focus” needed to fix bad schools, he adds.

For generations, money was thrown at urban school systems; regulations were strengthened; school boards were empowered. Unions won tenure and other great benefits for their teachers. All of these efforts came from the top down. None improved outcomes for minority students. “We have tended as a country to solve problems like this more through generating energy by way of our entrepreneurs,” says Mr. White. “The approach [in New Orleans] is just government facilitating an entrepreneurial solution to this inequity.”

And then there’s this parting shot from Haynes…

“As representatives of public schools BESE members have one of two options, they can continue to be instruments of the governor or they can be representatives of the people,” said Haynes. “Teachers, parents and community members need the representatives of this very important body to step up to the plate.”

Except there’s a problem: those BESE members aren’t “instruments of the governor” as Haynes tries to paint them. They are, in fact, “representatives of the people.”

Only three BESE members are “instruments of the governor.” Penny Dastugue, John Bennett and Connie Bradford are the appointed members. The other eight are elected. Of those, six were elected running on the precise platform of school choice, re-examination of teacher tenure and increased autonomy and accountability for individual schools that White offers as superintendent.

And they didn’t just win. They won big.

Chas Roemer and Kira Orange Jones won runoffs with 57 percent of the vote. Carolyn Hill won a runoff with 58 percent. In the primaries, Jim Garvey pulled 58 percent against two opponents endorsed by the teachers’ unions, while Jay Guillot beat a union-endorsed incumbent by a 55-45 margin and Holly Boffy blew out another union-endorsed incumbent 67-33.

Does Miz Haynes honestly believe her line that those six BESE members and the three Jindal appointees who will vote to select White as the superintendent are not representing popular will? Or is she just talking tough to give her members the impression she’s an effective union boss?

The only “establishment” BESE candidate who won last fall, Lottie Beebe, apparently didn’t get Haynes’ memo on a statewide search. Because she’s pushing a national search, rather than an in-state search, to find somebody the teachers’ unions wouldn’t veto…

The individual should be one who has no political obligations and can make sound, responsible decisions independent of Governor Jindal, or Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and others outside of Louisiana who may have contributed to the campaigns of BESE members. He or she should possess credentials required of district superintendents.

To deviate from such standards is irresponsible and confirms the adage, “It is not what you know; it’s who you know.” This is the wrong message to communicate to our students. On Tuesday, December 6, 2011, BESE’s student representative voiced his support of a state superintendent who has the credentials expected of local district superintendents. I commend this young man for recognizing the importance of standards.

Again, White currently IS a district superintendent in Louisiana; he heads the RSD. If Beebe wants to fight the battle of whether he’s qualified for the job he currently holds, then perhaps she can explain why the parents in Orleans Parish seem to overwhelmingly favor the approach he’s pushing and think the RSD’s model beats what was in place before Hurricane Katrina. One could analyze those facts and conclude that White is perceived to be doing a pretty good job; thus he’s probably qualified for the job he’s currently succeeding in.

It’s also pretty laughable to assail the selection of White as a “who you know” hire. White was recruited from New York to run the RSD because he was a rising star in the school reform movement, and that’s the direction Jindal – with the wide support of the voters in Louisiana, by the way – wanted to move in. He’s in place to implement a vision, not to draw a paycheck.

And he hardly knows anybody. He’s only been here since April.

The establishment, based on the phony criteria Haynes puts forward, is pushing a who-you-know hire – at least, a lot more than they accuse BESE of doing – with their insistence that the next superintendent be someone who knows all the teachers and can “communicate” with them.

Dastugue makes a lot more convincing case

“It seems a bit foolish when we have a candidate who has the credentials and the ability,” she said. “If you were to even go through the exercise, who of a similar caliber of John White would even put their name out there knowing that the governor and a majority of the BESE members support John White?”


White’s selection is no surprise. In fact, it’s already been ratified in a proxy vote last fall. The unions have had their opportunity to stop it; they lost. Now come the consequences of that loss, and the uneasy feeling that Haynes, Beebe and the rest of the establishment will be doing everything they can to sabotage school reform in order to discredit it in front of the very voters who put it into motion last fall.



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