Inside Report: Common Core questions

Is there a split between Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Superintendent of Education John White?

Or is there just the illusion of a rift because Jindal is trying to placate part of his political base?

The flap involves the tougher public school classroom standards Common Core.

The new rules spell out what students should know grade by grade. But Jindal keeps making fire-in-the-theater type comments about the new guidelines, while White extols their virtues.

The latest flare-up stemmed from a letter by state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans. Henry said he wants the state to withdraw from Common Core, which would merit a brief mention.

However, the governor elevated Henry’s criticism when he said he shares the lawmaker’s concerns and wants an explanation from White and the Jindal-friendly state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Jindal said he is concerned classrooms will be saddled with a “federalized curriculum,” which is one of the chief fears of anti-Common Core organizers set to rally at the state Department of Education on Saturday.

The governor made a similar comment Aug. 2, when he told a group in New Orleans he would oppose any bid by federal officials to impose a curriculum on local schools. Three days later, he declined to endorse Common Core.

Meanwhile, White has repeatedly talked about Common Core as a settled issue, without any comments about possible disasters.

On Sept. 19, the superintendent said he would urge BESE to pass a rule that shields public schools from dropping more than one letter grade when the rigor takes full effect in the 2014-15 school year.

On Aug. 22, White said 86 percent of public school students are attending schools that meet minimum computer requirements, which stem from Common Core assessments.

And while the governor said he was concerned about a federal curriculum, White, on the same day, simply restated the aims of the new rigor.

The split messages have spawned two schools of thought.

One is that Jindal is backing away from Common Core, in part because he wants to reinforce his image as a governor willing to take on a runaway federal government and the Obama administration.

The other view is that the governor’s comments are simply red meat to critics of federal government overreach and that he has no intention of pulling the state out of Common Core.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, which backs the new rigor, downplayed any suggestions of a rift.

“I don’t read what the governor said that he is against the Common Core standards,” Erwin said. “He is reiterating his concern that there not be a federal takeover.”

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said some of the controversy stems from misinformation about any federal requirements for Louisiana and other participants.

“It is not a federal curriculum,” Nieland said. “There are no textbook requirements. There are no data collection requirements.”

Yet fears that Common Core will pave the way for unprecedented federal interference are driving the debate.

But the guidelines were actually crafted by a wing of the National Governors Association and the umbrella group for state superintendents of education nationwide.

The Obama administration encouraged adoption of the standards, and offered financial incentives for states that did so.

Rayne Martin, a former top official of the state Department of Education, said she remains confident Jindal and others are solidly behind Common Core.

“The fact is Louisiana has been making progress,” Martin said. “But we just don’t have the level of standards in place to be able to be competitive on a national and international basis.”

Will Sentell covers state education policy for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.