Political Horizons: Common Core criticism sparks odd alliance

The drive to revamp or repeal the national academic standards called Common Core has spawned an odd political coalition.

One passionate wing of the attack — generally right of center — is coming from parents and their legislative allies who see the standards as a gross intrusion by the government on local school issues.

“Conservatives have come out and said our hesitations are the federal government coming in and telling us what they want to do,” said Joshua Stockley, associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

These critics also say the standards and the exams that accompany them represent an invasion of privacy, with religious affiliations, family incomes and disciplinary records all subject to disclosure.

The other line of criticism — loosely left of center — is coming from traditional public school organizations, including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators and their allies in the Legislature, which begins its 2014 session at noon Monday.

They generally contend that the rollout of Common Core has been flawed, and that letter grades, teacher evaluations and other policies linked to the standards are riddled with problems.

Ordinarily the two wings would have little to do with each other, especially when it comes to the role of government in public school issues, the virtues of the Obama administration and the need for higher taxes.

Yet what unites the two sides, at least unofficially, is the push to rework, delay or kill a set of reading, writing and math goals that Louisiana and 44 other states have adopted in a bid to improve student achievement.

They believe, for different reasons, that Common Core needs wholesale changes, and maybe much more.

The standards are supposed to take full effect for the 2014-15 school year.

Initial national exams, another sticking point, are set to be given for the first time next spring.

However, more than a dozen bills are already pending in the House, and many more are expected.

Some would shelve Common Core entirely. Others would phase it in. Still others would kill the national exam, which is called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers .

And several bills have been filed to ensure student privacy.

Stockley noted that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s stance is also unclear.

The governor says he favors tougher academic standards but has concerns about federal interference in local school issues.

“He was initially an advocate of this, and now you have a lot of conservative groups nationally and within Louisiana who are reacting very strongly,” Stockley said.

“He wants to appeal to conservatives and the right, but how does he do that without doing a 180 on a policy that he initially advanced?” he asked.

Another complication is Jindal’s national ambitions and possible bid for the White House in 2016.

Is the best route to stick with Common Core and try to forge the image of a governor who made education reform the hallmark of his time as governor?

Or is Common Core becoming a politically radioactive issue that will cause problems for any national candidate identified as a supporter?

“His vagueness is a natural political response,” Stockley said of Jindal’s stance.

Last year, the issue was mostly off the radar. Yet even a single hearing on Common Core in the Senate Education Committee sparked a huge turnout.

This time, the issue will be in the spotlight from the first day, especially in the state House, where most of the bills are filed.

Hearings are likely to produce hours of testimony, much as they did two years ago when Jindal pushed his education overhaul through the Legislature in record time.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education endorsed Common Core in 2010, which was barely noticed. But once the rollout started entering classrooms, the temperature started rising.

Some of the rage and criticism resembles the national fight over Obamacare, and the view that government is encroaching where it has no business.

Backers contend that, by backing off the push for tougher standards, the state risks isolating itself as some sort of education backwoods.

“It is very passionate,” Stockley, the ULM professor, said of the debate. “And I think in fairness it is being driven by some misinformation, and that is why the issue is very messy.”

Any outright repeal of Common Core in Louisiana appears to be a longshot unless Jindal comes out against the standards, which opponents are hoping happens.

Bills to protect student privacy, some of which mirror policies approved by BESE to defuse criticism, appear to have more traction.

Some kind of delay on the national test could gain steam, especially since several other states have opted for their own assessments.

Students in grades three through eight are set to take the national exam. How high school students will be tested is unclear.

The anti-Common Core front is unusual, even by the wacky standards of Louisiana politics.

Whether it represents widespread voter dissatisfaction or just a noisy minority will be clear once lawmakers start casting votes.

Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate.