White: Unions in way of students

Louisiana’s two teacher unions are hindering efforts to improve student achievement in public schools, state Superintendent of Education John White said.

“The decision that their leadership has made to try to get in the way of parents choosing what is best for their kids is I think a very regrettable one,” White said in a 30-minute interview last week about his eventful first year as head of Louisiana’s public school system.

“So I would say that, by definition, at this moment in time those organizations have chosen to get in the way of student achievement,” he said.

White, who is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, directed his comments at leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, called LFT, and the Louisiana Association of Educators, known as LAE.

Both groups filed lawsuits to toss out Louisiana’s expanded voucher law, which White and other backers say gives students and parents the ability to escape failing pubic schools.

After a three-day hearing, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, on Friday ruled the voucher law unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the state plan to appeal, and any final resolution is likely months away.

White said he knows that the chief aim of the LFT and LAE, as it is for any union, is job protection and working conditions for teachers and others.

“But when those objectives become so politicized that you start to contradict the rights of others in the name of the rights of your members that seems to me to cross the line,” he said.

Leaders of both groups disputed White’s comments.

“The superintendent is the one in the way of progress,” LAE President Joyce Haynes said. “If you think vouchers is the answer you are already on the wrong track.”

The voucher law is allowing nearly 5,000 students who formerly attended C, D and F public schools to attend private and parochial schools at state expense.

Leaders of the LFT, LAE and other critics contend it is unconstitutional to send state tax dollars intended for public schools to their private and parochial counterparts.

White made his comments the day before Kelley’s ruling during an interview as he nears the one-year mark as Louisiana’s $275,000 per year superintendent.

He is set for his first annual job evaluation in January by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which hired him in January of this year after a months-long push by Jindal to get White in the job.

BESE President Penny Dastugue said she thinks White will get a favorable job review from the 11-member board, which includes up to nine Jindal allies.

In interviews with educators, White gets high marks for leadership during tumultuous times and improved relations with local superintendents.

“I think White is a good listener,” said Nancy Roberts, executive director and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators.

“That goes a long way,” Roberts said.

Critics contend his department is secretive, acts unilaterally too often and that White and key aides are likely short-timers in Louisiana.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the secretive way that White and the department pushed through new rules for private and parochial schools to qualify for state tax dollars was indicative of a lack of transparency.

“I just think it was unconscionable for him to do that,” Smith said.

White’s first year as superintendent coincided with some of the most sweeping changes in public schools in state history.

Prodded by Jindal, the Legislature earlier this year approved the voucher bill as well as measures to make it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job security called tenure.

They also enacted laws that redefined the role of local superintendents and overhaul pre-kindergarten programs.

At the same time, the state is in the first year of implementing a new system for teacher evaluations, which will lead to dismissals for some.

In addition, the state is about to toughen classes for public school students as part of a national push to forge national standards that will allow easy state-to-state comparisons of student achievement, where Louisiana has ranked at or near the bottom for years.

However, the LFT and LAE have vehemently opposed many of the public school changes pushed by Jindal and White.

LFT President Steve Monaghan said White and others could have avoided the lawsuits if they had been more inclusive about what went into the bills as they were rammed through the Legislature earlier this year.

“He has been riding that high horse for some time now,” Monaghan said of White’s criticism of teacher unions.

LAE Executive Director Michael Walker-Jones said White has repeatedly rebuffed bids by LAE officials to offer input to the superintendent and local school districts.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, president of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said White does a “master job” of setting education policies behind the scenes, includes a wide range of educators on policy discussions and is an impressive advocate for public schools.