State Superintendent of Education John White used to be one of the most high-profile officials in state government.
However, since January he has been far less visible, works on a month-to-month contract and serves as public schools lieutenant for a governor that has made no secret of wanting him replaced.
“The absence of the state superintendent of education, especially in the legislative session, is somewhat peculiar,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.
“I think I can count the times that he was there to testify on one hand,” said Richard. “And there were several days of testimony that included some pretty important topics that affected every aspect of public education.”
Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said White “has had very little presence at the Legislature” — except for talks on revising teacher evaluations and standards.
“Superintendent White has had little visibility this spring when major decisions impacting K-12 education are being made,” Milton said in an email response to questions.
Allies of the superintendent tell a different story.
They say the chief reason he appears to be off the radar is that years of controversy over Common Core — White played a leading role in promoting the standards — is largely settled.
That fight, which sparked national attention, pitted White against his onetime ally, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, key state lawmakers, some members of Louisiana’s top school board and some local superintendents.
“He had a very high profile over the last couple of years because of the Common Core issue we were dealing with,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.
“It was an in your face type issue, but that has kind of fallen largely on the backburner now,” Erwin said.
In an interview, White said he is concentrating more on day-to-day school operations.
“That really is what a superintendent should be doing, spending time in schools with the people close to the kids,” he said. “I am feeling a lot more invigorated with the future spending days in schools than I would be spending every day in the Capitol.”
Even with the reduced visibility, White said he has made 11 appearances before various legislative committees since February on the budget, charter schools, graduation requirements, dual enrollment and other topics.
White has been superintendent since 2012 and calls his post the “best job I have ever had.”
That also was the year Jindal pushed a sweeping overhaul of public schools through the Legislature, which meant the superintendent had a regular presence in the State Capitol.
The Common Core debate heated up in 2013, then became a near daily story at times in 2014 and 2015, with White playing a leading role.
But this year most of the legislative debates are about Louisiana’s $600 million shortfall, with public school issues oftentimes pushed to the background.
Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said talks on how to change the way teachers are reviewed were about the only time he had substantive talks with White in recent months.
“Every other issue they haven’t been really involved in as much as I thought they would be for the session,” Riddle said.
Some officials said it makes sense that White has been less visible in recent months.
After all, Gov. John Bel Edwards vowed during last year’s campaign for governor that, if elected, he wanted White replaced.
The governor backed off that vow in January, largely because he does not have enough votes on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to fire the superintendent.
A spokesman for Edwards said at the time the governor would “keep an open line of communication” with White on how to address public school needs.
The Governor’s Office said last week it had nothing more to add to that statement.
While White’s critics do not have enough votes to replace him, his backers lack enough support — eight of 11 BESE members — to give him a new contract.
White, who is paid $275,000 per year, operates on a month-to-month contract, which appears unlikely to change anytime soon.
“Nothing has been talked about since about January,” said BESE President Jim Garvey, a Metairie attorney.
“Nobody seems to be interested in changing the way things are right now,” Garvey said. “It doesn’t seem to be bothering anybody one way or another.”
White, who has gotten three consecutive favorable job reviews from BESE, agreed. “I don’t think it is an issue that affects anything,” he said.
Others say White’s contract status has to play a role in his reduced visibility.
“It is pretty obvious when you are on a month-to-month contract it certainly changes your perspective on your ability to institute long-term planning and making long-term pronouncements for education,” Richard said.
By his own admission, White had little involvement in what he called the key school bill of the session — a measure to gradually return state-run public schools in New Orleans to the Orleans Parish School Board.
He said RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard did the heavy lifting on that issue.
Eva Kemp, state director of Democrats for Education Reform-Louisiana, downplayed White’s lower profile.
“Test scores are up, graduation rates are up and more kids are going to college,” Kemp said.
“Nothing is lost from our state superintendent spending less time in the capitol and more time on our schools,” she said.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.
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