Just eight months ago, John White was hired as state superintendent of education at $275,000 per year.
Big salary? No doubt.
So is the $12,000 per month the state is paying his new communications manager, in part to put the state Department of Education in the best light possible.
Yet few officials in state government face bigger agendas, and hotter topics, than White and his sprawling, often-reorganized agency.
Backers contend the superintendent is a key part of Louisiana’s bid to upgrade a public school system long regarded as one of the worst in the nation.
Critics contend the changes are actually wrecking public education, and that White and others on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s team are yet another here today/gone tomorrow band of self-styled reformers.
In addition, pending lawsuits filed by teacher unions could blow up much of Jindal’s education overhaul, which was muscled through the Legislature earlier this year.
Earlier this week White launched a 26-parish tour, including visits to traditional public schools, charter schools and private and parochial schools that accept voucher students.
White says that, by November, he will have visited schools in all 64 parishes since he took over as superintendent.
Yet in many ways the work is just beginning.
The expansion of Louisiana’s voucher program, which involves nearly 5,000 students, is just six weeks old. How those students fare academically is one of the key questions that will help shape White and Jindal’s legacy.
So will new teacher evaluations, which stem from a 2010 law pushed by the governor.
Under the old system, nearly every teacher in the state routinely got a “satisfactory” rating.
How that could happen in a state where 44 percent of schools are rated D and F, and where one of three students performs below grade level, never has been explained.
Starting this school year, all 60,000 public school teachers face new review methods.
Teachers rated as “ineffective” in back-to-back school years face dismissal.
Starting next year, the annual reviews will be linked to tenure, which is a form of job protection.
Backers contend that linking teacher ratings to student performance is long overdue.
Opponents call the reviews flawed.
Under a bill approved earlier this year, Louisiana is to reorganize its prekindergarten system.
White on Wednesday repeated one of Jindal’s chief criticisms of today’s system — only 52 percent of children in Louisiana enter kindergarten ready to learn, knowing such things as the alphabet.
State education officials plan to submit the initial plans to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in December. Eventually, the state will assign grades to the programs.
It all carries the potential for sweeping changes for preschool students, which could have an impact on how those students fare in the classroom for the rest of their school years.
In another area, the state is about to launch tougher classes as part of a push for nationwide standards that allow state-to-state comparisons on student achievement. Courses will cover fewer topics in more detail, White said.
Topics that used to be tackled in fourth grade, for instance, will surface in third grade.
Exams that used to rely on multiple-choice bubble tests will force students to reason, and explain their reasoning.
Louisiana’s public education system has never had so many far-reaching changes on the launch pad at once.
Will they pan out or fizzle?
Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org