Even before the November runoff election, it had been a big year for state Education Superintendent John White, now the longest-serving person in his position in the nation.
He was not on the ballot: The head of the state Department of Education is selected by a state board, not a public vote.
White and several of his predecessors have been appointed by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, composed of eight members elected from districts around the state and three members appointed by the governor for four-year terms.
But White, backed by business leaders and education reform groups of both parties, saw eight members elected who are generally in line with White’s views. Seven of those races, including those where several incumbents were challenged by candidates backed by teacher unions, were settled in the October primary.
In November, Ronnie Morris of Baton Rouge won the capital-area district formerly held by Kathy Edmonston, of Gonzales, who ran for and won a House seat in Ascension Parish.
Morris’ win was a key, as the eighth vote on BESE for the business-led coalition in the coming year.
That’s significant for White mainly for symbolic reasons: He has been working without a contract, month-to-month, because BESE was unable to muster the eight votes required for his appointment.
Edmonston and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ three appointees made the split on the board 7-4.
Denying White a contract, something given to superintendents of local systems, was a petty bit of vandalism by Edmonston and Edwards’ appointees. The governor is backed by teacher unions and, while his members of BESE may change, he said the views of next term’s members would be along the same lines as those in the last four years — that is, anti-White.
While it is too early to predict an absolute 8-3 vote to offer White a contract, it is probably a pretty safe bet.
Those election victories also ensure that White’s new efforts to boost accountability scores will continue through 2025. The board’s friendliness to charter schools and other kinds of educational innovations is also unlikely to change.
This is not to say that BESE discussions or votes are set in stone by the campaigns. Members serve for token pay and get voluminous materials to read for every meeting. Their views may differ on particular questions.
Some members are more versed than others in the minutiae of education lingo. One of Edwards’ appointees, Doris Voitier of St. Bernard Parish schools, is a particularly knowledgeable member; outgoing BESE chairman Gary Jones, of Alexandria, was a former Rapides superintendent.
But as a policy matter, the elections were not only a victory for White’s views at the ballot box. He also helped to spearhead earlier in the year, during the legislative session, a discussion of greater funding for early childhood education.
At the Press Club of Baton Rouge, he sparked controversy by saying that the governor’s initial budget contained no new dollars for early childhood education. Some of Edwards’ opponents promptly crowed that the governor had not funded early childhood programs, which was not true. But additional money was White’s point, and over the course of a couple of months of the session the Legislature expanded funding for the programs.
It's important to recognize that Edwards is also a big supporter of early childhood funding, and both his Republican opponents also reiterated their support for it during the campaign. The additional funding came in part through a bipartisan level of support on that issue within the Legislature.
White’s intervention in the debate nevertheless mattered.
Whether the superintendent will continue is yet to be determined, as his leadership has drawn raves from many national commentators in education reform. He is certain to be the target of recruitment efforts elsewhere. But 2019 certainly represented a significant validation of White’s views politically as well as in policy.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.