Quin Hillyer: The comfort of shady politics

August is traditionally the slowest month in American politics — especially down South, where even political animals just want to sip lemonade in the shade. Where issues do burble up, like water overflowing a storm drain after a summer squall, Lemonade Guy may avoid full engagement, preferring just to kibitz from his hammock.

In that tradition, let’s consider quick observations of the passing scene, rather than digging deeply into any one issue’s weeds. To wit:

Vocational education gets its due. The Chas Roemer-led Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Superintendent of Education John White should be commended for advancing their overhaul, and expansion, of “career” or “technical” education offerings in high schools. Their Jump Start plan, more details of which were released this week, will enable about 25,000 students to split time between traditional courses (math, English) and workplace training (for example, as an electrician, a Web designer or a construction worker). Moreover, students can wait until their junior years to decide whether to choose that path in place of “college prep,” rather than committing as early as the eighth grade (as is done now).

The reforms began through a law backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal two years ago. They recognize that different people have different aptitudes — and, just as importantly, that those various aptitudes can be equally valuable and admirable. In today’s unwisely homogenizing educational world (ahem, see Common Core), this respect for different ways of learning is much needed. As other controversies rage over Louisiana education, BESE merits appreciation for keeping this initiative on track.

Common Core does control curriculum. Speaking of which, one of the technically true but meaningless claims by Common Core supporters is that the Core involves “just standards,” not a mandated curriculum. The real-world falsity of that claim is evident, however, in the very lawsuit filed by BESE and of the Choice Foundation in New Orleans in the ongoing battle over the Core. All of the conniptions by BESE and by others about Jindal sowing “chaos” for the new school year would be meaningless if standards were the only thing at issue. The whole point of their complaints is that actual classroom practices will be severely affected if Common Core is jettisoned.

But if the standards did not in effect dictate a curriculum, there would be no chaos. As the lawsuit itself declares (with my emphasis in italics), “Importantly, Defendants’ actions jeopardize preparations for the impending 2014-15 school year, which have already started without clarity regarding the assessments that will guide those preparations and, ultimately, instruction.”

For the uninitiated, this might sound like a small point, but it is at the very heart of many complaints about Common Core’s alleged assault on local control of education. Indeed, it is the very basis for the lawsuit Jindal amended Aug. 6, noting that federal law prohibits the imposition of a national curriculum.

The law will be adjudged later, but the Core’s supporters suffer a big loss for their logic.

Speaking of lawsuits … and lawsuit abuse. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry last week proudly released a new report on “Louisiana’s Judicial Climate,” and it finds that climate still not great but improving. Most of the report, though, focuses on just one issue: LABI’s push for a reduced threshold for jury trials. LABI thinks juries are better arbiters of damage claims than are elected judges.

As a longtime, outspoken proponent of business-backed lawsuit reforms, I’m nonetheless of two minds on this. On one hand, Louisiana’s current system — favoring judge-only trials unless the disputed amount exceeds $50,000 — appears to run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s Seventh Amendment making jury trials the norm. (Point for LABI.)

On the other hand, juries seem (to me) to be far better equipped to decide the guilty-or-innocent question in a criminal trial than to decipher the oft-complicated, oft-technical, sometimes legally baroque questions at play in lawsuits. Juries also often lack context — unlike a judge who handles hundreds of such cases — in deciding what size monetary award to provide the winner. It’s certainly not obvious that juries in slip-and-fall cases are better equipped than trained judges to mete out real justice. (Point against LABI.)

This subject merits more thought and continued honest debate.

But debate can wait. First, more lemonade.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com, and he blogs at blogs.theadvocate.com/ quin-essential.