John White may be the silver-tongued boy wonder of the school reform movement, lauded for his political acumen and often mentioned as a future U.S. secretary of education. But last fall, Louisiana’s whip-smart and occasionally cantankerous education superintendent found himself on a lonely mission: driving his state-issued Prius along the Bayou State’s two-lane highways, stopping at churches, schools and Chamber of Commerce meeting halls, promoting the embattled Common Core learning standards to a state whose governor no longer wants them.
As rain pounded down outside Scott Middle School in Lafayette, White, in khakis and a navy blazer—a uniform reminiscent of his prep school days—looked like he was gaining ground. Buoyant and self-assured, he told a gaggle of local reporters that the standards were going forward just fine and praised a math lesson he had just witnessed inside.
“I’m going to tell everyone I meet with that I just saw 25 sixth-graders knock it out of the park on the Common Core standards,” he boomed.
Meanwhile, back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who once praised the standards as a way to “raise expectations for every child,” was denouncing them and taking potshots at White. That’s the same White who was appointed by the state board of education in 2012—after much Jindal lobbying—to roll out a roster of education initiatives, among them, yes, the Common Core.
Today, White, once called “Jindal’s boy” by political insiders, is the governor’s most celebrated public enemy, and a statewide education reform initiative years in the making may end up falling by the wayside, adding chaos and confusion to Louisiana’s already beleaguered school system.
All this could easily be chalked up as an only-in-Louisiana tussle to be expected in a state whose education system is near rock bottom and whose political brawls have a tradition of being both colorful and callous. But this battle is bigger than Louisiana. Across the country, the Common Core standards, a set of rigorous K-12 English and math benchmarks designed to improve the state of the nation’s schools, have become increasingly divisive. Sponsored by the National Governors Association and state education chiefs, they were voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia starting in 2010. But the standards have since become red meat for everyone from Tea Party activists, who cry government overreach, to lefty soccer moms, who rail against their “corporate” approach. The pushback is pitting political allies who came together years ago to support the standards against each other. And it is seriously undermining the power and persuasion of the nation’s education reformers, who have long seen the standards as the crown jewel of their national efforts to improve American public schools.
Whether the 39-year-old White can squash the rebellion in his own state is no small matter. It may well indicate whether other progressive reformers—less politically skilled than he—have any shot at salvaging the standards in their own states, and whether Louisiana and other low-performing states really have the stomach for widespread school reform after all.
The ailing state of Louisiana’s public school system was once an unfortunate but accepted reality. Parents who could afford to send their kids to private and parochial schools did. Those who could not suffered through the spotty and unreliable public system, often holding their noses.
That all changed in the 1980s, when the state got badly burned by the now infamous oil bust. Oil and gas revenues counted for as much as 41 percent of the state’s budget in 1981, and when the industry faltered the state nearly went bankrupt. To reignite the economy, government heavies knew they needed to diversify. But they soon discovered that the state’s bottom-of-the barrel education ranking was a billboard sign telling corporate America that Louisiana had a dearth of qualified workers. “Fixing the schools”—and fast—became everybody’s goal.
In fits and starts, and with some backward movement, Louisiana began overhauling its community college system, increased teacher pay, rolled out new K-12 testing regimes and eventually took over failing schools, closing some and turning others into charters.
The blow from Katrina in 2005 reinforced the improve-schools urgency as dozens of flailing schools in New Orleans were shuttered by the storm and media outlets flocked to the city, shining a discomfiting light on their subpar quality. That helped drive even more legislative support for charter school expansion and a more defined teacher evaluation system, which Jindal helped push through in 2010.
A lot of these measures were spurred on by George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind act, which strong-armed states into passing reform bills. But they were also the result of careful bond building between Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as disparate lobbying groups—from big business to civil rights activists. Traditionally on opposite sides of the aisle and sometimes openly hostile toward each other, they were now in alliance, long-time foes suddenly together in their efforts to better educate Louisiana’s neediest students, many of them African-Americans.
Lane Grigsby, a Republican and the founder of a well-known construction firm here, says he stood behind these measures because “you’ve gotta have educated kids for the workforce.” Standing with him were social justice leaders like Kenneth L. Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, who calls education reform an “equity” issue.
But despite the across-the-aisle hand-holding and the sheer boldness of many of these measures, they fell short on many counts. From 1990 to 2010, the state’s education ranking didn’t budge much. And in 2010, the state’s college readiness score was still trailing behind the national average.
The grand hope for the Common Core, adopted by the state board of education in 2010 and first introduced to schools in 2011, was that it wasn’t punitive or piecemeal, like many of the state’s earlier efforts. Instead, it was an ambitious and unambiguous road map outlining the skills and knowledge every student ought to have at the end of each year. And because it asked every teacher in the state to present material that was more rigorous than what had been taught before, many thought it might have the curative effect these other measures had not.
But it was also just one part—albeit a large one—of the state’s education reform agenda. And in the beginning, it was shrouded in limited controversy, seen as the best way to finally boost Louisiana’s sour education reputation.
John White arrived on the scene in the spring of 2011 just as the standards were first appearing in schools. Recruited from New York to run Louisiana’s Recovery School District, a reform-backed post-Katrina effort, White was widely perceived as a shining star of the progressive reform movement, one of many young, ambitious intellectuals who had been dispatched to outposts around the country to battle what they saw as the movement’s most pernicious enemy: “low expectations.”
But from the onset, White, who has degrees from the University of Virginia and D.C.’s tony prep school St. Albans, seemed more politically astute than many of his allies. There was the brash Michelle Rhee, who had gotten famously booed out of Washington; the beleaguered Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, who by the summer of 2011 was struggling mightily to contain critics of her charter school expansion plans; and Los Angeles’ John Deasy, who was ousted last fall.
Yes, White’s résumé read like a near carbon copy of these like-minded reformers, with stints in Teach for America, Eli Broad’s education leadership academy and Joel Klein’s New York City Department of Education. But White had a roster of other line items to recommend him. While in New York, he had risen fast, helping to roll out some of the district’s most innovative tech initiatives. He was often dispatched to the Upper East Side to appease parents enraged by overcrowding and the South Bronx to sooth those distraught over the shuttering of their children’s failing schools. He was quick-witted, good-looking, and, when he wanted to be, charming. Further, the word on the street was Klein, one of the movement’s gurus, loved him.
This is not to say that White did not have his critics. In 2011, during his time in New Orleans running the state’s Recovery School District, he was sued by three fired principals. And he was frequently attacked by parents and educators who said he bulldozed through his education agenda items without consulting the people most impacted by them. It is a claim he fiercely denies.
But even then his enemies recognized his political might. The head of the state teachers union told me last fall that White excelled at “behind-the-curtains work” to the point of being “autocratic,” suggesting White’s enemies hated him for the same reason his allies liked him so much: He was dogged about getting what he wanted.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that when the state’s top education slot opened up, Jindal made it clear he wanted White in the post. White was charged with rolling out the governor’s own ambitious education reform package and the much-anticipated Common Core, which at the time Jindal still strongly supported. And indeed, once the state board of education appointed him in January 2012, White went all out doing what he is famed for: working nonstop. The general consensus was that White came in knowing who held the power and how to keep the powerful on his team.
White is spirited and gregarious when he talks about that first year. In addition to implementing Jindal’s other education reform initiatives, he says his department organized seminars, hosted webinars, wrote brochures and built a team of teachers who were charged with spreading the news: The Common Core was coming.
So, what happened? Ask folks here and some say White is to blame. Overly confident about his own strengths and overly excited about the Common Core, he failed to see where opposition could—and would—form.
But Bernie Pinsonat, a longtime Louisiana pollster and a partner in a well-known political consulting firm in Baton Rouge, disagrees. He says the savviest politico in the world couldn’t have prevented the debacle here over the Common Core. By the time the rollout began, the public was already primed to hate it.
“People are tired of education reform,” he says. “What you have here—across the country—is reform fatigue.”
Indeed, almost immediately after the rollout began in earnest in 2012, Louisiana teachers were griping that they hadn’t been sufficiently trained in the standards and parents began storming school board meetings, insisting they didn’t want a curriculum overhaul.
At boisterous meetings in Lafayette, Calcasieu and Jefferson parishes, irate parents—most of them white—began to complain about elementary school math homework culled from a Common Core website designed by educators in New York state, often referred to as Eureka Math. Students were being asked to draw graphs, construct diagrams and explain their work, sometimes for simple addition questions. Parents called the approach confusing and unnecessary.
Echoing the “culture wars” of years past, others began taking aim at certain suggested reading passages. One oft-criticized passage, which a fourth-grade teacher chose for a homework assignment in September 2013, outlines the life of a rapper named Twista who rose to fame with the song “Po Pimp.”
“[The passages] are not in tune with our morals and our culture,” says Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, a school employees union .
Today, when White speaks in support of the Common Core, he can seem to talk minimally (or too little) about its impact on middle-class schools, reserving his most impassioned rhetoric for the ways in which the Common Core will help the poorest and neediest in the state, offering those students the caliber of education rich kids in high-performing East Coast suburbs are getting.
“I don’t come at this from a position on the left or right,” he said to me last fall. “I come at this entirely from a civil rights perspective.”
They’re heartening words, but they raise a salient question. Is Pinsonat right that no one could have convinced middle-class parents to buy into the new standards? Or was White simply using the wrong tactic, spending too little time on what the Common Core could do for middle-class families and too much on how this fit into his own social-justice agenda?
While White struggled to reach these middle-class parents, national bloggers, education activists and radio talk show hosts were having no problem getting through.
Conservatives like Glenn Beck dedicated hours of airtime to his anti-Common Core campaign, telling his listeners that the standards were “a national program” and “a takeover of education.” YouTube exploded with videos of like-minded allies in Tennessee, Oregon and Wisconsin, telling stories of children brought to tears while trying to complete simple arithmetic problems the “Common Core way.” Meanwhile, critics on the left denounced the standards as a corporate plot to put money in the hands of textbook and testing companies. Before long, billionaire philanthropists—like the Koch brothers—were funding anti-Common core advocacy groups, and states that had signed on began backing off, with Indiana Governor Mike Pence leading the way.
But nowhere did the political drama play out more colorfully, and arguably more cruelly, than here in Louisiana.
In the summer of 2013, Jindal, still technically a supporter but also said to be courting Tea Party support in the run-up to 2016, began toying with his position, telling a crowd at a gathering for the conservative political blog RedState that he would oppose anything that smelled like a “national curriculum.”
Buoyed by their governor’s bold remarks, parents stormed the state legislature this past spring, begging to be let off the Common Core hook. And this summer, when it became clear the legislature wouldn’t change its stance on the standards, Jindal dug deeper and issued a series of executive orders designed to repeal them.
In a series of now infamous steps turning a hot Louisiana summer into one of the steamiest political seasons on record, White refused to obey Jindal’s orders. Soon after, angry anti-Common Core legislators sued White’s department and the state board of education, a suit Jindal eventually joined. And then irate parents who supported the standards sued the governor. After deriding the standards as Obama’s attempt “to strip away states’ rights and put Washington, D.C., in control of everything,” Jindal topped it all off in August: He sued the U.S. Department of Education.
White now says this distracting slew of litigious events made it increasingly difficult to send a clear message to the state’s 70 school districts about the standards.
But polls suggest he may have been immersed in more of a public relations snafu than he let on. While there were certainly people who knew and liked the Common Core, they were having an awfully hard time being heard. The two parties that seemed to get the most media attention were the haters and those in the dark.
A poll conducted by the Louisiana State University Public Policy Research Lab indicates that nearly half of Louisianans had still not heard much about the standards by early 2014. As recently as last summer, more than half of all Americans hadn’t either, according to a poll by Education Next.
Considering that many parents were learning about the standards for the first time when they showed up in their kids’ backpacks, it’s easy to understand how one of the fiercest sticking points about the standards—that they were an Obama imposition—managed to go so viral. Already distrusting national initiatives, many Louisianans couldn’t shake the idea that maybe their governor was right. All this had been dreamed up in the White House, along with Obamacare and same-sex marriage.
The president had not, in fact, come up with the standards, but he did his part to spread this idea in 2009 when he linked a state’s implementation of the standards to its chances of getting Race to the Top dollars and, eventually, No Child Left Behind waivers.
White refuses to blame Obama for his travails. But others in his camp have wondered about what might have been had Obama not decided to ally his increasingly unpopular administration with an initiative that desperately needed to stay bipartisan.
“The Obama action on the Common Core really transformed it from a state-led initiative we could all agree on to something that was much more politically charged,” said Michael Brickman, the national policy director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that supports the standards.
White also rejects accusations that his own office might be to blame for failing to quickly clear up the confusion over where the standards came from—from Baton Rouge or from Washington. He defends his decision to ask an army of 4,000 teachers to lead the rollout campaign by citing studies that say parents are most receptive to school-related information when it comes from teachers.
But even White’s strongest allies concede he may have gotten lost in the weeds.
“You spend four or five years on it, and it doesn’t dawn on you that you’re four or five years ahead of everyone else,” says Chas Roemer, the Republican president of the state’s board of education and a White ally.
On his solo politicking tour last October to promote the standards and, weirdly enough, a handful of other education reform initiatives that Jindal still backs, White, whose public style oscillates between congenial professor and government heavy, maintained a positive front, thanking teachers, business executives and principals for their steadfast support. Showing off his considerable political skills, he shared his email address with math teachers and energy executives and glad-handed preschool directors in small-town parking lots, praising the standards and letting no sign of despair slip out.
But sitting in his car nibbling on nuts and beef jerky, with only a reporter in tow, he acknowledged that he is concerned.
“Up until now, governors and big-city mayors have supported reform from the center,” White said, hinting at his fear that the bipartisan bonds may finally be fraying. “Is the next generation going to do that?”
White insists that his critics are “a small minority of very vocal people” and that education reform should be nonpartisan.
So far, in Louisiana, it still is, and White has managed to hold his ground. The state’s 700,000 students are being taught from material aligned with the standards and are preparing for spring tests. Further, White still has the support of Louisiana’s statewide board of education, its legislature and the state’s most powerful lobbying group, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Brigitte Nieland, a vice president of the lobbying group, says White “knows how important strategic alliances are.”
But supporters continue to taper off.
A few days after his fall tour, in a much-publicized vote, parents persuaded the school board in St. Tammany Parish to scrap the Eureka Math curriculum, and several other school boards are following suit. At the end of October, Republican Senator David Vitter, a leading gubernatorial candidate who is considered a White ally, wrote a public letter urging White to remove New York State’s math program from its suggested Common Core-aligned curricula. And just a few weeks ago, in a startling reversal, Vitter called for Louisiana to repeal the standards altogether.
Meanwhile, battle lines are being drawn for the spring legislative session.
Brett Geymann, a Republican and one of several legislators who fought unsuccessfully to scrap the standards during the last session, says he will be rallying the troops again. Last year, many anti-Common Core measures failed to make it through the legislature, but Geymann’s group was able to vote in parental review of Common Core textbooks, making it easier for parents to banish the most contentious material.
On the other side, members of the business community are determined not to let the Common Core die. “You can have a lot of voices,” Grisby said of the critics. “But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the resources.”
If that’s true, the Common Core is likely to stay, at least in some form. If parents can help determine their own textbooks and shoot down curricula they dislike, what students will eventually encounter could well be a Common Core lite. Oklahoma and South Carolina have both bowed out of the standards. And while educators in both states say they are coming up with equally rigorous replacements, critics worry that in states that go their own way, students may well be getting a lower-quality curriculum.
After his whirlwind day, White settled into an oversize leather chair at a Lafayette Starbucks and turned his attention away from the Common Core standards and toward the education reform movement’s larger task at hand: survival.
He ticked off a list of agenda items he currently supports—beefing up the nation’s early childhood programs, reinventing career-training for high schoolers and attacking the runaway cost of college, among others. “You can’t keep asking people to run on the same platform,” he said of state and national leaders, adding that a roster of new initiatives was the way to stay relevant and nimble.
“You don’t do that by walking away,” he said. “You do that by doubling down.”
When told that he sounded eminently political, White, whose pleasant prep-school manners had been on display all day, grimaced. “That’s my job,” he said.