Stephanie Grace: For Common Core debate, Jindal focused elsewhere

Inside the committee room and out in the hallway, Wednesday’s hearing over two legislative proposals to water down Louisiana’s commitment to the Common Core education standards felt straight out of 2012, when lawmakers adopted Gov. Bobby Jindal’s all-encompassing plan to reshape public education.

There was the throng of interested spectators trying to get in, so many the fire marshal ordered the doors locked and left many onlookers, from parents to teachers to school system superintendents, outside or in overflow rooms. There was the marathon meeting that went late into the evening, forcing some witnesses who’d been there all day to wait until after dark to testify. There were the big, hard issues on the table and strong emotions that debates over education reform proposals here and across the country always seem to bring out.

There were Jindal’s historic allies on such issues expressing their support for Common Core, from state Superintendent John White and members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to business leaders — including Jindal’s longtime aide Stephen Waguespack, the new head of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — to House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, who never would have landed that post in the first place had he and the governor not been on the same page.

The biggest change from two years ago, frankly, was Jindal’s role itself.

Two years ago, the governor’s influence could be felt everywhere. He left absolutely no doubt as to where he stood, and having positioned true believers such as Carter and Sen. Conrad Appel in key leadership positions, he used every ounce of his influence to push lawmakers to adopt the far-reaching package his office developed intact, with little amending.

Thus, the Legislature adopted measures to limit teacher tenure, bolster parent choice among public schools and increase options such as online education. It also greatly expanded private school vouchers with limited accountability — a plank that some reformers privately admit they accepted in order to get their priorities through. That measure has run into serious legal troubles, but Jindal has trumpeted it as he’s tried to raise his national profile among conservatives.

Jindal once backed Common Core without reservation, as well — until he and other Republican governors started seeing signs of unrest on the right (teacher unions, which Jindal labeled key members of the “Coalition of the Status Quo” have issues with Common Core, too, but Jindal’s surely just fine with that).

Ever since Jindal addressed a convention staged by the RedState blog in New Orleans in the summer, he’s been inching away from his support, siding with critics who blasted the idea of national standards. Never mind that he and other governors were the ones who came up with Common Core in the first place, before President Barack Obama helped rile up opposition by endorsing it.

Meanwhile, pressure to stick to Common Core also mounted, from proponents who never budged from their belief that staying the course is the best way to bring Louisiana’s students up to par with their national peers in a measurable, demonstrable manner.

As concern from both partisans and frustrated parents spread and lawmakers came under increasing pressure to retreat from the national standards, Jindal stuck to general platitudes and kept the crowd guessing over his position.

It wasn’t until late Wednesday that he finally came out for the two big proposals before the committee, state Rep. Brett Geymann’s move to set up a 30-member local commission to write state-specific substitute standards, and Rep. Cameron Henry’s to pull out of the PARCC testing consortium that Louisiana helped set up in the first place.

This time, though, there was no big announcement, no lobbying, no testimony, just green cards signaling the governor’s support for the bills, submitted by staff members.

And predictably by now, there also was little impact: The governor went on record on an issue that resonates with part of his potential national base, but lawmakers shrugged him off and defeated the two proposals easily.

In fact, Jindal decided to spend the biggest day of the legislative session so far up in Washington, D.C., speaking to the national media about a new proposal by his think tank to replace Obama’s Affordable Care Act — a topic on which the partisan politics remain safe and comparatively straightforward.

The think tank, of course, is called America Next, and the title never seemed more apt than this week, because Louisiana has never seemed further from Jindal’s sights.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.