Stephanie Grace: Common Core debate seems to ignore education

When we talk about Common Core — and we certainly talk about it a lot these days — sometimes I wonder whether we’re talking about education at all.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s gradual but ultimately total renunciation of the reading, writing and math standards he once backed leans heavily on generic, conservative rhetoric. Jindal talks frequently and forcefully about states’ rights and alleged federal overreach when he bashes the program.

But he rarely mentions the fact that a vast majority of states, including his state on his watch, played a huge role in creating both the standards and the tests. And he practically never lodges specific objections to what’s happening in Louisiana’s classrooms, how schools are teaching fewer skills but in more depth, how they’re training students to make evidence-based arguments and explain how they solve math problems.

Some parents who’ve lobbied to get rid of Common Core have complained about these approaches, but does Jindal object to them? Hard to tell.

And what would he propose changing if Louisiana were to develop its own standards and tests, as he now wants to do, at presumably significant cost? Beats me.

After being rebuffed by the Legislature, Jindal asked lawmakers to reconsider and launched several steps to pull out of the PARCC testing consortium, even though it’s not at all clear he has the legal authority to do so. Announcing his increasingly high-stakes showdown with Common Core proponents — led, lest we forget, by the state school superintendent he recruited, the education board members he backed and the legislative leaders whose appointments he championed — Jindal explained his reasoning this way:

“We won’t let the federal government take over Louisiana’s education standards. We’re very alarmed about choice and local control over curriculum being taken away from parents and educators. Common Core has not been fully implemented yet in Louisiana, and we need to start the process over. It was rushed in the beginning and done without public input.

“Additionally, proponents weren’t up front about federal involvement in PARCC and Common Core. Now that we understand the federal overreach involved, we need to slow down and make the right decision. Some Common Core proponents suggest that we cannot have high standards without Common Core. That is a false statement. We need a Louisiana test that ensures children are performing at high levels so they can compete not only around the country but around the world. We can certainly have high standards without giving up control of Louisiana’s education system to the federal government.”

That’s a whole lot of rhetoric, and it echoes conservative complaints about the Affordable Care Act and other initiatives that, like Common Core, have the support of President Barack Obama.

Yet while the ACA is indeed a federal program, Common Core was developed by a bipartisan coalition of governors and state education administrators. The federal government has linked financial incentives to the adoption of rigorous standards, but there’s no mandate out of Washington. Nor is there a national curriculum.

So it would be nice to think that, for a governor to try to abruptly pull out of a long-planned, in-progress overhaul, creating confusion and uncertainty for teachers, students and administrators, he’d have some more compelling reasons — or at least some more precise ones. Maybe he could even make an evidence-based argument, like the ones that students are being taught to make under Common Core.

Absent that, I guess I can look at the evidence and try to do it for him.

Let’s see. Tea party-aligned voters are expected to have a big influence over the Republican primaries. Polls show those voters are far more skeptical of Common Core than the country as a whole. Other potential presidential candidates who may run to the right, people like U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, are Common Core critics (although none of them have to worry about making state education policy or explaining away their earlier positions).

So that’s the political reasoning, in a nutshell. As for how abandoning Common Core would make Louisiana’s schools better, position its students for success or even prove they can keep up with their peers in the first place? Well, maybe someone in the Jindal administration can get to work on that.

Call it extra credit.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.