Louisiana Schools Chief Warns Of 'Aggressive Populism' That Harms Education Reform

Schools Chief Warns Against 'Aggressive Populism'
pupils in class using digital...
pupils in class using digital...

WASHINGTON -- The so-called education reform movement -- the bipartisan efforts of policymakers that produced the latest wave of charter schools, tenure reform, "Waiting for Superman" and Michelle Rhee -- is at risk, Louisiana's schools chief John White will say in a speech Tuesday, according to prepared remarks.

"An aggressive form of populism has asserted itself in the rhetoric of our day," White is expected to say at the conservative American Enterprise Institute's headquarters in Washington. "I see it in a tone that is skeptical of reformers in the same populist way our country today is skeptical of authority generally. This is, I believe, greatly damaging for an education reform effort that has done good in America and that needs to be sustained. And it needs to be addressed, lest this generational effort wash out with the tide of the next administration."

The speech comes as mayoral races in multiple states appear to challenge the national reform agenda, which has prevailed in major cities over the last decade. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) has ferociously promoted the growth of charter schools, allowing them to share space with public schools for free; reduced the number of teachers who receive tenure; and closed scores of underperforming schools. But the winner of the city's recent Democratic mayoral primary, Bill de Blasio, has said that charter schools should be forced to pay rent and called for a moratorium on school closures.

White previously worked at Teach for America and served as deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education under Bloomberg's handpicked schools chief Joel Klein. He was initially tapped to run Louisiana's Recovery School District -- a statewide special district focused on underperforming schools, including many hard hit by Hurricane Katrina -- before being quickly promoted to the state's superintendent of education post in January 2012. Since then, he has become a frequent target for critics of the reform movement, including New York University historian and former George H.W. Bush official Diane Ravitch.

White is currently caught up in a legal fight with the U.S. Department of Justice over Louisiana's school vouchers program. His boss, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), has criticized the DOJ lawsuit loudly and vigorously. White is also defending the Common Core, while Jindal wavers in his support for the learning standards adopted by 45 states. But White isn't set to address vouchers directly in his speech.

The reform agenda, he plans to say, has gone from "small-time advocacy" to become the prevailing ideas in governance, education and philanthropy. "How we manage our newfound authority in a populist time is a critical and tenuous question," White will say. "Our most important responsibility as reformers is no longer just to clamor for change but to sustain and expand the positive direction of our nation’s education system. The greatest risk we face in doing this is not the validity of our ideas but the pitfalls of authority itself."

The reform movement, he will say, is undermined when its leaders are painted as "crusader characters in a play written by the media and soon forgotten by the people." The now-in-charge reformers "risk becoming part of the establishment we resist." If this happens and reformers start to "take greater stock in the short-term cleverness of our policies than in our long-term ability to implement them ... we will have become a special interest group ... out of step and unable to endure the populace swell."

To prevent that from happening, White is offering a three-part solution. "First, if we are to sustain our positive impact on the future of American education, reform leaders will shift their mission to national responsibility over self-righteous sympathy," he will say. Reformers who rely too much "on an easy sympathy for the urban poor" can hurt the cause, he will say.

Second, he will call for the narrative around reform to be "refreshed." This means taking the fight to enemies beyond teachers unions. While White argues that the media paint reformers as "ideologues," what he calls the real "establishment bureaucracy" -- the management of huge federal programs like Title I and Head Start -- takes little flak.

"Without the new fight, what we have is stale story," White will say. "We are letting the populist story of reformer versus working person tell itself."

Last, he will propose that reformers focus more on implementing than devising policies. Implementation of big ideas, such as the revision of teacher evaluations, is often clunky and half-baked. "This is an existential threat to any hope of reform," he will say. "The most disabling condition in public education is not incompetence but learned passivity. It is taught to educators through a distant, fragmented system of governance that exercises power downward, crushing the flow of good, authentic ideas upward."

Accomplishing all this, White will conclude, "will take the discipline of policymakers who see a long-term, national future and are willing to fight new fights."

CLARIFICATION: Language has been amended to characterize more accurately the Recovery School District's mission statement.

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