James Gill: Jindal against Common Core — well, sort of

Converts are supposed to be particularly zealous, but Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sudden embrace of the anti-Common Core cause is distinctly lukewarm.

He has barely lifted a finger to ensure that Louisiana retains its place at the bottom of the educational tables. Sure, he says he hopes Common Core will be scrapped in this legislative session, but the cynics will say that Jindal has tested the political winds and is merely making expedient noises as he pursues the White House dream.

The administration filed green cards signaling its support for two bills to derail Common Core last week, but took no part in committee hearings and does not appear to have twisted any arms in the corridors of the Capitol. Both bills died.

One would have withdrawn Louisiana students from national tests scheduled to start next year, and the other would have completely abandoned Common Core, which was adopted for Louisiana schools four years ago. Instead a 30-strong commission would have drawn up new standards for Louisiana, subject to the approval of those noble champions of academic rigor who make up the state Legislature.

The rigmarole proposed in the latter of those bills by Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, might have been worth the time and money involved if it had met some of the objections raised by nervous parents and teachers. But it is not the standards themselves that have caused so much fuss, here and in other states, but the curricula that various local authorities have imposed in order to meet those standards. The biggest complaint seems to be that grown-ups find themselves baffled by the new math.

That bafflement is only natural — indeed, do not ask yours truly to explain how they teach kids to cipher these days — but it would not have been diminished had Geymann succeeding in ditching Common Core, which merely establishes benchmarks for each grade. How they are met is up to state and local boards, and the choice of teaching materials is not in Common Core’s bailiwick.

The proposition that educational standards are in urgent need of improvement cannot be seriously disputed, since all official ratings show that American kids are dumb by international standards and Louisiana kids are dumb by national standards. The teacher unions that are inclined to squawk about Common Core question the pace and methods of its implementation, but not its premise.

Jindal says he is still for high standards, although he has dropped the line that Common Core is the way to achieve them. This is quite a change in attitude, for the standards were developed under the aegis of the National Governors’ Association, and he warmly endorsed their introduction in Louisiana. Now he pooh-poohs what he terms Common Core’s “one size fits all” approach.

That has been the right’s rallying cry ever since President Barack Obama came out in favor of the standards. Thus what was entirely an initiative of the states, adopted in all but five of them, has been transformed by GOP demonologists into a federal power grab. Beware, lest latterday carpetbaggers kidnap our kids and stuff their heads with ideas.

Common Core cannot be “one size fits all” so long as the states have total control of their schools, curricula and textbooks. National standards provide both a goal and a means of measuring how Louisiana students are stacking up against the competition. It would be a generational betrayal to deny them that.

Thanks to standardized tests, we have a pretty good idea how they have stacked up so far, and the numbers are not fun to read. Common Core opponents who resent any outside influence might reflect that we already tried it our way and no other state looks to us as a model. No, not even Mississippi.

Legislators were unimpressed by Jindal’s opposition to Common Core, since his heart was clearly not in it. He finds it hard to fake an interest in Louisiana these days.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.