Louisiana looks set to lose a key actor in its struggle to provide a quality education to its children.
State Superintendent of Education John White will resign after just over eight years on the job. He has served longer than any appointed superintendent, and the longest since the four elected terms of Shelby Jackson that ended in 1964.
White has earned his departure, since he found turbulence in his job almost from the start. Actually already part of the state’s educational scene as superintendent of the state’s Recovery School District which then existed only in New Orleans when given the state’s top job, he had a mission to implement long-reaching reforms passed into law only months into his tenure, changes bitterly opposed by many in an educational establishment and its allies who had overseen over the decades Louisiana’s plunge to the bottom.
The job came his way with the blessing of Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose allies both elected and appointed by him on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education tabbed White. Yet not long after White assumed the job, he had a falling-out with Jindal over the Common Core State Standards initiative, support of which Jindal reversed. Despite that, White saw its implementation through so successfully that today it has disappeared as a political issue.
Then, White went from the frying pan into the fire with the election of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, who sympathized with the long-standing interests that had resisted reforms. Despite numerous pledges made by Edwards to reverse what White had championed and helped to formulate into practice, White with a majority of BESE and the Legislature stood fast so that virtually no backsliding occurred, and the state continues to make progress on a number of educational outcomes.
Edwards also famously said he wanted White out as superintendent, and undoubtedly this played some part in White leaving the scene. Not because Edwards had any serious chance of removing White, for as elections last year demonstrated, even with the return of Edwards to office voters placed enough members onto BESE who shared White’s agenda of greater accountability, expectations, and choice that Edwards wouldn’t have the votes to boot White from his month-to-month contract.
At the same time, with Edwards in office for another four years, White must recognize that additional policy changes to improve matters further would be far and few between. After eight years in the post and staring at another four years where, at best, only incremental change can occur because of the obstacle in the Governor’s Mansion that calls for a lot of playing defense, it makes sense that White would seek a role where he could make a bigger positive difference in the lives of children.
White’s Mar. 11 exit also creates interesting dynamics for picking his replacement. Allies of his agenda have at least six solid votes of BESE’s eleven. However, it takes eight to offer the job, and it’s unlikely enough of the minority would back a reformer of White’s stature. It’s not inconceivable that one or more interim leaders will emerge through 2023, who by the very tenuousness of their positions won’t provide the leadership that White could.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that White was the most consequential figure in Louisiana state politics outside of Jindal and Edwards over these past eight years. Those who put the needs of children over the wants of adults in education will miss him.