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John White’s Nonprofit, Propel America, Wants to Expand in Louisiana

February 1, 2020

In June 2018, Louisiana state superintendent John White co-founded a nonprofit, Propel America, which is piloting its career pathway product in four states, including Louisiana– even as co-founder White holds the position of superintendent of the state in which his fledgling nonprofit began doing business.

One can discover some of the national-level key players in Propel America from LinkedIn bios, but not from White’s LinkedIn bio. Co-founder White wants to be the Louisiana state superintendent who co-founds a nonprofit that does business with Louisiana, but maybe the public will not notice if White’s connection with Propel America is restricted to an occasional sighting, kind of like Where’s Waldo.

Paymon Rouhnifard, Co-founder

  • Walton Family Foundation, Entrepreneur in Residence (2018 to present)
  • Camden City (NJ) superintendent (2013 – 2018)

Debra Kurshan, Chief Operating Officer

  • NY Dept. of Ed (2007- 2010)
  • New Orleans Recovery School District consultant (2011)

Erin Bendily, Executive Director

  • Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), Assistant Supt. and Deputy Supt. (2010 – 2019)

John White

  • No mention as Propel co-founder

White does not yet appear to be drawing financial compensation from the nonprofit; however, he also neglected to mention creating the nonprofit to his “boss,” the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), and he did not mention piloting its product anywhere, much less in the state that he oversees as superintendent.

White downplayed himself to BESE to such a degree that according to the April 30, 2019, Advocate, he never mentioned to BESE that he co-founded a nonprofit– even as his nonprofit was piloting its career path product in Baton Rouge and New Orleans:

State Superintendent of Education John White has quietly become the co-founder and chairman of the board of a national nonprofit group aimed at connecting low-income high school graduates with solid jobs.

The organization, called Propel America, is led by White and Paymon Rouhanifard, former superintendent of the Camden, N.J., school district. …

But the undertaking is little known in Louisiana even while pilot projects are being launched in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. …

He said he did not publicize his role with the group because the pilot projects involving 50 students are not an operation of the state Department of Education.

Gary Jones, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said White’s role warrants attention.

“I am not sure that all BESE members are aware of it yet, but some of us have recently become aware,” Jones said. “I am sure at some point we will have a discussion about it.” …

The aim is to increase the pilots from 50 students initially to 1,000 per year for the next three years.

The downplaying of co-founder White’s involvement in Propel America continues in this Draper Richards Kaplan (DRK) Foundation’s Propel America page, which highlights Rouhanifard as “co-founder” and superficially mentions White:

Meet Paymon Rouhanifard

Prior to starting Propel America, co-founder and CEO Paymon Rouhanifard spent nearly a decade working in and leading major urban school districts. He worked in the New York City Department of Education, was the Chief Strategy Officer for Newark Public Schools, and most recently served as the Superintendent for Camden City Schools in New Jersey.

It was in Camden where Paymon began thinking more about what he perceived to be a false choice facing his and so many other high school students across the country. Students were either forestalling income and accruing debt toward a traditional degree that many would not complete, or forestalling education to work in low-wage, low-mobility jobs.

He saw top students struggle, many of whom enrolled in college only to de-enroll and work in entry-level retail or service-oriented jobs. Through it all, he saw potential for a way forward. Across his career, Paymon had met employers that spoke of well-paying, hard-to-fill jobs requiring a postsecondary credential with opportunities for advancement. He came to realize there was a “third way” — a postsecondary option that involved both college and an affordable, quicker path to financial stability.

Alongside Louisiana Superintendent John White, Paymon decided to create a system through which more students could access well-paying middle-skill jobs, with many options for post-secondary success.

Prior to his tenure in education, Paymon spent several years in investment banking at Goldman Sachs and AEA Investors. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science from UNC Chapel Hill.

Even though White formally resigned as Louisiana state superintendent on January 08, 2020 (effective March 11, 2020), according to a January 22, 2020, exit interview White had with Education Week, White was planning on operating his nonprofit even as he remained in the position of Louisiana state superintendent:

White said he has “no plans” for his immediate future. However, he did say that he’ll continue to work on the issue of connecting high school graduates to work and careers, at a time when the connections between employers and their communities have basically “dissipated.”

He pointed to a nonprofit group he founded, Propel America, that aims to connect students to pathways with the help of employers as well as schools. White serves as the group’s board chairman, but said he wasn’t planning to move from the Louisiana education department to working at that organization.

White wanted to found a nonprofit and chair its board while soliciting contracts to that nonprofit from the state where he served as superintendent and pretend some magical disconnect one from the other.

Now that White has “no plans” following his Louisiana superintendency departure, it seems that (at least for the moment), he has nothing better to do.

Propel is growing! From Propel America’s LinkedIn profile in November 2019:

Our community is growing! Today, @PropelAmerica is in 20 high schools across 4 states. We have 400 amazing students and 80 educators on board.

 

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And even as he continues to hold the position of state superintendent, White’s Propel America is listed as a vendor presenter for Louisiana’s 2020 Jump Start convention in this itinerary posted on the White’s LDOE website. On this itinerary, two individuals are listed as Propel America representatives: Kristen Smith and Dustin Whitlock.

Smith is associated with the Teach for America (TFA) lobbying nonprofit spinoff, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE). In the April 2019 Advocate article, Smith was identified as Propel America executive director of Lousiana who is overseeing Propel America’s Louisiana pilot. Whitlock is a teacher in Lincoln Parish who identifies himself on Twitter as Propel’s North Louisiana Program director.

Of course, White’s goal is to grow his nonprofit, and to believe that he will not profit from it himself is simply naive. Propel America is looking to expand, and to do so in Louisiana.

If you really want White gone, protest his sneaky efforts to extract beefy LDOE contracts via his nonprofit. Embarrass BESE into nixing this next White financial reaping of Louisiana taxpayer money.

john white 2017

John White

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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2 Comments
  1. Same people playing musical chairs with Walton money.

    No members.

    Just paid veterans of their failed cause.

  2. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Paymon Rouhanifard was recently appointed to the Massachusetts state board of education, and already Propel has its programs in Holyoke and Springfield. The state took over Holyoke’s public schools in 2015 (https://www.hps.holyoke.ma.us/turnaround/turnaround-plan/) and has threatened to do the same to Springfield. Both cities have large numbers of poor kids, for whom English is not their home language.

    I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, though.

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