State Superintendent of Education John White, who helped lead the state through sweeping changes in its public schools since 2012, told officials Wednesday he is leaving his post.
White, who survived pitched political battles with two governors, made the announcement in a letter sent by email to members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who will be in charge of finding White's successor.
He said serving as superintendent for the past eight years – the longest tenure in the nation – was the "greatest blessing and privilege of my career."
White also said that, during his tenure, the state has boosted scores on a key national exam, reached its highest high school graduation rate – 81% – and overhauled its early childhood education system.
The superintendent helped usher in the politically-charged statewide expansion of school vouchers, tougher annual evaluations for public school teachers and stricter rules on how public schools are rated.
Louisiana public schools are starting the 2017-18 academic year anew, and students will not be the only ones facing a new challenge.
"Louisiana is better educated today than any point in its history," White said in his letter.
The superintendent's resignation is effective March 11.
What he will do next is unclear.
However, White has developed something of a national reputation in education circles and has long been the subject of speculation for jobs elsewhere.
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Jefferson Parish Superintendent Cade Brumley and former Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard have been mentioned as possible successors.
White, 44, became superintendent in January 2012 after a campaign by then Gov. Bobby Jindal to line up the needed votes on BESE.
The pair later had a bitter and nationally watched falling out over Common Core, the controversial push to upgrade rigor in reading, writing and math. That issue sparked heated battles among BESE members, parents, state lawmakers and public school groups.
Backers said White and his allies were trying to bring overdue changes to public schools.
Opponents charged that the standards represented federal meddling in local school issues, and some made White the target of their anger.
However, the standards survived and, after a makeover aimed at adding more of a Louisiana imprint, survive today with little controversy.
BESE President Gary Jones, who lives near Alexandria, praised White's tenure. "John was definitely a change agent and Louisiana education needed one," Jones said.
Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher group Louisiana Federation for Children, echoed that comment. "Under John White's leadership K-12 education has turned the corner," Duplessis said in a statement.
Vouchers are state aid for children from low-income families to attend private schools.
White generally sided with advocates of major changes in school operations, which often put him at odds with the state's two teacher unions – the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators – and the Louisiana School Boards Association.
He was often aligned with advocates of charter schools, the Council for a Better Louisiana and Stand for Children, whose officials were often embroiled in public schools battles at BESE and the Legislature.
In 2015 then gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards, long supported by teacher unions, vowed to replace White as superintendent. But after being elected governor Edwards saw that he lacked the votes on BESE, which makes the call, to carry out his campaign pledge.
Edwards and White later developed a functional working relationship in spite of major differences over how to improve the state's long-struggling school system.
In a statement, the governor noted that, with White's support, teachers in 2019 won their first pay raise in a decade, state aid for public schools rose as did dollars for early childhood education.
"Though we did not always see eye to eye I appreciate John White's service to our state," Edwards said.
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Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said her group wishes White well but is is glad he is leaving. "I know many educators were not pleased with the initiatives pushed by Mr. White's administration," Mills said in a statement.
Despite notable gains in key areas in the past eight years, Louisiana remains near the bottom nationally in public school achievement.
"If our state's struggle to provide many of them (children) a quality education is in part a product of history and circumstance, it remains our responsibility as Louisianians to provide them homes, communities and schools that nurture their gifts in spite of history and circumstance," White said in his email to BESE members.
He said 2019 improvements in eighth-grade math on the nation's report card were the biggest in the nation and that Louisiana finished in the Top 10 in the past decade for gains on all four subjects covered by the exam, called the National Assessment of Education Progress.
White, who is paid $275,000 per year, made his announcement just ahead of a new BESE board taking office, which takes place during inauguration ceremonies on Monday.
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The previous board was unable to agree on a new contract, which requires eight of the 11 votes on BESE.
As a result, White has operated on a month-to-month agreement for the past four years.
BESE Vice-President Holly Boffy, who lives in Lafayette, said the state made "great strides" during White's time.
Boffy said the board will hold a special meeting to discuss the hunt for a new superintendent.
White, who grew up in Washington, D.C., served as superintendent of the Recovery School in New Orleans for nine months before assuming his current post.
He is former deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education.
White, who is married and has a 1 1/2-year-old daughter, said he plans to remain in New Orleans.