Inside Report: Common Core sparks Jindal, White rift

Not so long ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal and state Superintendent of Education John White seemed like natural allies.

Jindal wanted White to be his top public schools lieutenant.

White wanted the job.

And for eight months, the governor campaigned, literally and figuratively, for that to happen.

Month after month, Jindal told reporters that White was his pick.

The problem was the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which hires and fires superintendents, declined to go along.

So in 2011, Jindal got behind several contenders for BESE with a purpose in mind: End the stalemate on BESE and get White hired.

That happened in January 2012, and Jindal said at the time that White “is just the type of passionate, competent and committed educator we need as superintendent to build on our record of reform.”

White then played a role in promoting the governor’s push for sweeping public school changes, including a new teacher tenure law and the statewide expansion of vouchers.

Yet things started unraveling 18 months later, and today Jindal and White are on opposite sides of one of the biggest public school debates here and nationally in years.

The issue is Common Core, which Jindal wants shelved and which White says is imperative.

White, in a rarity for any state official, says the governor is wrong on the law.

Jindal’s team, in another odd twist, says the White-led state Department of Education botched the selection of the tests that are supposed to go along with Common Core.

The Jindal administration demanded a wide array of documents from the agency — they were due Monday — including any previous spending on the tests, services and products received and copies of all the contracts that pertain to purchase of the exams.

White and BESE responded in kind, and on Tuesday the formerly pro-Jindal board voted to hire special legal counsel to press the fight.

That may set up a high-stakes showdown in court, and one heavy with meaning for a governor with 2016 presidential aspirations.

How wide is the split?

Jindal calls it a fundamental disagreement, but insists that he can work with the superintendent.

White has noted that he has worked with the governor on a variety of public school issues.

But hard feelings have set in after months of a widening rift.

Jindal’s executive counsel on June 26 issued a 10-page report, trumpeted by the Governor’s Office, aimed at dousing White’s claim that state law requires the implementation of Common Core.

Even the headline on the news release points up tensions.

“Gov. Jindal executive counsel debunks superintendent legal claims on having to implement Common Core,” it says.

When White told superintendents statewide that action by the Jindal administration would delay results of summer LEAP retests, aides to the governor pounced.

The superintendent was wrong, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said.

White rescinded his message.

But he said he did so only after Jindal aides modified their initial order suspending a key state testing contract, which he said showed that they misunderstood the sweeping nature of their initial action.

The Jindal-White spat has sparked questions on why the governor does not simply fire the superintendent.

The reason is White answers to BESE, not Jindal, at least in a formal sense.

Three of 11 BESE board members are named by the governor.

However, only his most recent appointee — Jane Smith, of Bossier City — is publicly siding with the governor on the Common Core fight.

Jindal can slow Common Core. He may be able to scrap the tests that are supposed to go with it.

Yet the governor likely will need a court to say whether he or his former ally White has the last word on what 700,000 public school students are taught and tested on.

Will Sentell covers state education policy for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com. Follow him on Twitter, @WillSentell.