Common Core causes conundrum

Legislators last week were pricked by the tip of the sword in the coming assault on Common Core.

Louisiana House and Senate committees heard bills about student data privacy. While not directly part of the national learning standards controversy, the issue has been linked, by opponents, to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

The passion opponents have brought to the Common Core debate creates a political minefield for Republican politicians.

The business community, which often backs Republican candidates, widely supports national standards for the math and reading skills students should master at each grade level. But many of the GOP’s grassroots base argue that Common Core is federal overreach of a state’s rights.

Whether to abolish Common Core or tinker with its particulars is the battle that many predict will define this session of the Louisiana Legislature. The bulk of the bills will be heard during the first week of April.

But last week, the intensity of the testimony over bills about how to best keep private the personal information of students shot across Louisiana skies like a comet the oracles in the ancient Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh” used to prophesize fire and brimstone.

Perhaps the seminal moment came Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee when Nicki Gaspard said state Education Superintendent John White should go to prison should any evil befall her children.

Seems White allowed the release of student information to inBloom, she said. I nBloom Inc. is a not-for-profit entity based in Atlanta that collects and stores information about students to more easily synchronize and transfer data between school districts and educational institutions.

Gaspard pointed to what inBloom itself says, that while secure, no guarantees can be made that the system would never be compromised.

Carefully and slowly enunciating each word, Gaspard said she feared that the particulars about her daughter would go to a third-party vendor whose system is not so secure. Armed with that information, a predator “shows up at my house and rapes and murders my child. Who will be going to jail alongside him?”

Gaspard said it should be the person — read: John White — who provided access to that information.

State Sen. Conrad Appel said after chairing the Senate Education Committee hearing that he was exasperated that inflammatory rhetoric had so swamped efforts to rationally improve Common Core.

“What am I shooting at here? It’s a ghost,” said Appel, R-Metairie, and an unapologetic supporter of strong standards.

Appel, like other legislators, wished for more definitive statements from Gov. Bobby Jindal, which could help form the debate.

As Jindal courts the national spotlight, he is avoiding issues in Louisiana that could prove controversial, divisive or embarrassing.

Jindal last week repeated his oft-stated view that he backs rigor and high academic standards so students here can compete both nationally and internationally. But he had some concerns about one-size-fits-all testing and potential breaches in student privacy.

The Council for a Better Louisiana on Thursday parsed Jindal’s wishy-washy statement, noting that it “sent waves of disappointment” and saying, “It would be helpful to know specifically what those concerns are.”

Later that afternoon, Jindal said he would consider each bill specifically but wouldn’t elaborate on his feelings or intentions involving Common Core.

Another possible GOP contender for the presidency in 2016, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, follows a different strategy.

Bush last week went to Tennessee, where that state’s legislature is grappling with the same controversy, and came out strongly in support of the standards as the key to improving education. Opponents were relying on what Bush called myths to derail Common Core, Bush said the same day Gaspard testified, and he called on supporters to resist opponents’ pressure, Bush said the same day Gaspard testified.

“Trust me, I know,” Bush said. “There are not a whole lot of people who are standing up to this avalanche.”

The next day, as Jindal continued to refuse to be more specific, the Tennessee Senate declined to take up a measure that would have delayed Common Core, giving that state’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, what local media called “a surprise victory.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.