CUNNINGHAM: John White And The Louisiana Politics Of Education

John White was preparing to announce that he was stepping down when word got out. From what I can tell, he was planning to give the story to The Advocate and make the announcement official the following day. But, someone from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) leaked White’s resignation letter to the head of one of the state’s teacher unions, who then made it public. The plans for the announcement story were scrapped as The Advocate felt they had to break it then.

It’s pretty dirty to have done that, to be honest, but such is politics in general and Louisiana in particular. Breaking the story that way puts added pressure on BESE when none is really needed. But, consider the teacher unions’ top ally: John Bel Edwards. Edwards has three people he put on that board specifically, while the others are elected across eight districts in the state. If three elected members side with the governor in the search for a new Superintendent of Education, that swings the direction of the state toward the unions, which would be disastrous for an already-struggling education system.

White receives a lot of criticism from both sides of the political aisle. Common Core is a big talking point in that regard. What White doesn’t receive enough credit for is his support for school choice and true equal opportunity for students. Louisiana’s education system has gotten better in many ways while he’s been in the job, some in measurable ways (progress on the percentage of students able to pass an Advanced Placement test going from 1% to 9%, for example) and in some non-measurable ways (teacher shortages still exist, but there is not the mass exodus we were seeing years ago).

What’s important is that this work doesn’t stop. The unions have one thing in mind, and that’s to increase teacher pay and rake in more union dues. They exist to benefit the teachers, but in education, the focus should be to benefit our students. So, BESE should be looking at candidates focused on students first.

Among some of the BESE members, the mentality appears to be that it’s their choice, not Edwards’ choice. I hope that mentality is shared by at least eight of its members. The board is mostly elected with just three appointed members in order to keep the board separate from the politics of the governor’s office. Letting him put his hands in that cookie jar too much will result in the state getting worse.

The type of candidates BESE will need to look for have to be pro-school choice, first and foremost. Student success comes with the ability for families to choose their education. Maybe it’s not a voucher program. Maybe it’s de-zoning (or, at least, making zoning rules looser). Whatever it is, we have to be open to pushing those policies out.

The best candidates will have answers to some of the most pressing questions facing students today: Are they prepared for college? Are they prepared to work if they’re not going to college? Do we have ways to push for early childhood education and provide the teacher trainings necessary to reinforce K-2 reading skills? Note the focus, again, being on student achievement, not teacher pay.

There is so much at stake in Louisiana’s education that we can’t afford for the governor to get his way and get someone whose focus is just on district policies and teacher retention. It has to be about the children. All guidance has to come from that perspective, and teacher retention isn’t just a problem of salary. Conditions in the classroom are not great, and there are legislative solutions to those as well. The next Superintendent of Education should be someone capable of working with the legislature to push the right policies.

If we make the right choice to replace Superintendent White, we can continue on an upward trajectory. The wrong choice will send us backward, and we simply can’t afford that.

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