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Solomon White pleasing everybody, nobody

Perhaps Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education John White should change his first name to “Solomon,” such as it seems he has tried to thread a needle in recent policy decisions.

During his tenure as the executive responsible for carrying out the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s mandates, White has shown marked preference for expansion of school choice as a means to improve delivery quality, and also backing ever-escalating accountability standards. Typically, this has pitted interests who focus on increasing achievement as a means of spurring economic development and improving life prospects against those invested in a one-size-fits-all model that advocates for increased inputs into the system that disproportionately flow to state-run providers and their allies.

Typically, the former group has supported his efforts while the latter has opposed White. Yet a few recent decisions by him have scrambled alliances, sometimes putting those who see progress as inducing greater efficiency out of schools in the same camp as those who view as best a state system monopolizing education flush with cash, for and against him.

Part of White’s job involves fleshing out administrative rules from BESE directives, and he issued such standards recently involving the Child Care Assistance Program. This program subsidizes child care for children age 4 or younger for lower-income households, provided the breadwinner works or attends educational programs. In 2008, it served around 39,000 at a state budgeted cost of over $26 million matched with federal money of more than $152 million. When White took over by 2012, the state contributed no money with the federal government footing the entire bill of about $104 million, aiding almost 22,000 children. This fiscal year, the state budgeted nearly $10 million with the federal contribution dropping to under $28 million, with only some 11,000 children now enrolled.

The main culprit for reduction in service came from raised eligibility requirements that had the effect of reducing demand and therefore the need to use state dollars. Both the hours of work/study to qualify and income levels became some of the highest among the states. Concerned about this, BESE asked DOE to look at these and White responded by lowering the hours standards.

But he did not increase the maximum income levels to qualify, and the pool of money remains the same. Thus, low-middle-income households could not qualify although eligibility expanded for those of lower incomes. Still, with no additional resources – with the state continuing to endure tight budgetary times any significant increase for next fiscal year that would leverage more federal money seems unlikely – it does not mean more lower-income households accommodated, just a more diverse mix of them included.

Nonetheless, the move pleased advocates on both sides. Those wanting more funding saw this as way to demonstrate greater need for future increases, while those desiring a better-educated population to improve workforce quality hailed greater facilitation of the goal for more people.

In contrast, another decision White made seemed to please nobody. In revising school accountability standards, he recommended that BESE make academic progress of students count for 25 percent of a school’s score, up from 7 percent. This came at the expense of absolute testing levels, promoting many of his usual allies to complain that this level set too high  deemphasized the actual quality; that is, schools who achieved at a demonstrably lower level but whose students improved relatively more would score at the same level as higher-achieving schools whose students showed little progress, perhaps because they already achieved at a higher level meaning they had less room for improvement.

However, White couldn’t win with his usual opponents, either. They called the 25 percent mark too low, penalizing schools that had disproportionately low achieving student bodies forced on them because of residential patterns.

Additionally, White caught flak from some typical allies when he also advised that the scoring system continue to operate on a curve, rather than absolutely. The state instituted this when it made the transition to the Common Core State Standards to adjust through the beginning period. White wants to continue it into another year, which would be its fifth. Interests stumping for accountability complain this choice dilutes that, while the move pleases others as the relative scoring system grades some schools higher than without a curve.

If the sum total of White’s policy-making makes nobody always happy or mad at him, then maybe, as the old aphorism goes, he’s doing something right.

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