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The John White Wars: A Brief History

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White has been a polarizing figure since he came to work in Louisiana more than six years ago, with battles consistently fought around him, for him, and against him.

It began with former Superintendent Paul Pastorek’s announcement in April 2011.

“John White is my recommendation for leading the Recovery School District,” Pastorek informed the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education on April 8, 2011. “John is probably one of the most respected reformers in the country.”

Little did Pastorek know he would become the first casualty – within a week of White assuming leadership of the RSD the next month.

“I want to say that it’s been a great four years. It’s time for me to go,” a tearful Pastorek announced at a press conference on May 10, 2011.

In the intervening time, then-Governor Bobby Jindal had met with White, and decided he wanted White to lead his planned push for education reforms. Unfortunately, there weren’t sufficient BESE members in agreement with naming White to head the entire state Department of Education. But there were BESE elections that fall. 

“Our number one priority in this election cycle were the BESE races,” Jindal announced after he had easily won a second term, and secured the super majority he needed for BESE to appoint White as state superintendent. And Jindal wasn’t shy about the cost.

“The Victory Fund spent more than $1.4 million to help different candidates. My campaign invested about $420-thousand.”

The new Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was sworn in at noon on January 11, 2012, and within a half-hour a vote was taken on the new state Superintendent:

“Nine yeas, one nay and one abstention.”

“The motion passes,” announce then BESE president Penny Dastugue. “Congratulations, Mr. White. You are now the state Superintendent of Education in Louisiana.”

“It is deeply humbling, as a career educator, to be given the opportunity to positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Louisiana’s children,” White said, in his acceptance comments. “And I take extraordinarily seriously the responsibility that has been put upon me – and welcome it.”

Two months later, White appeared before the legislature’s House Education committee, to lead the charge for the trio of bills encompassing Jindal’s desired education reforms.

“The proposals in this bill provide students across the state with greater access to choice, while maintaining a high bar for academic quality among schools statewide,” White said of H.B. 974, which expanded the ability to set up charter schools and authorized a statewide voucher program for private and parochial schools.

That committee was where White first crossed swords with John Bel Edwards,  who was then a state representative serving on the House Education committee. Edwards opposed many of the reforms.

“I think it’s bad policy, but I also think it’s unconstitutional,” Edwards said.

But the bills passed, and Jindal went out on the speaking circuit, touting the changes.

“We worked together to pass historic education reforms to give every student in Louisiana the chance to get a great education,” Jindal would brag. “We adopted the Common Core State Standards, which will raise expectations for every child.”

White was left to implement the reforms, and defend them against court challenges brought by school districts and teachers’ unions. Meanwhile, Jindal discovered his expected support base for his presidential run hated Common Core.

“There are a lot of people that have changed their views on Common Core when they see what it is,” Jindal said of his decision to strip testing funding from the state Department of Education. “This is a one-size-fits-all approach from D.C., using federal dollars to force states into Common Core.”

Thus ended the bromance between Bobby and John, as their breakup over Common Core went to court, with BESE and White seeking to restore the funding for testing.

“It’s not a question about the validity of the Common Core standards or the PARCC tests,” White told BESE, as they prepared to vote to sue the governor. “It’s a legal question about the operations of government.”

John White won that one, and ultimately, Jindal’s presidential bid failed. Additionally,

Louisiana elected new BESE members and a new governor: John Bel Edwards.

During his campaign, Edwards made it clear he would like to see the education superintendent replaced. Yet the new BESE members didn’t do so. And in June 2017, a group of citizens, including Ganey Arsement of Lake Charles, sued BESE.

“They have not voted to keep John White on, month-to-month. They have not voted to re-appoint him. Nor did they vote to start a search for a new Superintendent,” Arsement said, explaining the basis for the suit.

The court ruled in early July, stating these plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue, but others do -- including the governor.

When asked if he would consider taking up the cause of action himself, Governor John Bel Edwards said, “I’m looking at that situation to try to figure out if there’s a danger to the state moving forward. For example, if a successful lawsuit were brought 6 months from now, and Mr. White is forced to leave office, does that render null and void all of the actions taken since the end of the session where he wasn’t reconfirmed?”

John White’s most telling comment on all of this?

“We have got to get politics out of the classroom.”