Political Horizons: Different stories on Common Core split

Timmy Teepell can pinpoint the moment that the Common Core imbroglio erupted.

It was about this time last year when the architects of sweeping changes in Louisiana schools sat down for a meeting, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s top political advisor recalled.

Until that moment, the Jindal administration had worked in sync with Chas Roemer, the president of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees the state’s public schools and hires the state superintendent, John White, who administers the department overseeing the education of about 700,000 public school students.

Forty-five states, including Louisiana, had adopted the Common Core guidelines that define what every student should know in math, science and English from kindergarten through 12th grade.

But Teepell says he recounted for Roemer and White the various kinks other states had experienced in rolling out the Common Core State Standards Initiative and talked about the governor’s increasing reticence for a program he once embraced. Those reports were coupled with a growing awareness by Jindal and his aides that the mechanics amounted to a federal top-down imposition of a strict curriculum that supersedes traditional local control.

In short, even though the governor believes in the concept of higher standards, the actual structure of Common Core is at odds with Jindal’s refrain that parents should be able to choose among a variety of options when educating their children, Teepell said.

“I told them that we could find ourselves on opposite sides,” Teepell recalled, suggesting that Louisiana delay initialization of the academic standards for a year.

Roemer remembers the conversation differently and suggests Teepell now is trying to give Jindal a position at the tip of the sword for when Common Core emerged as a national issue. “It wasn’t, ‘We think Common Core was a bad idea.’ It wasn’t, ‘We don’t agree with these standards.’ It wasn’t any of that,” Roemer said.

The conversation was at a moment when the protests by groups affiliated with the tea party started gaining traction. “The governor didn’t have concerns about Common Core; he had concerns about his politics,” Roemer said.

BESE is a combination of eight elected and three appointed members. Teepell had been tasked in 2011 to help elect members, including Roemer, who would support the education change envisioned by the governor. BESE hired White, at the governor’s insistence.

Together, Teepell, Roemer and White led the effort to press the 2012 Legislature to enact a wide array of programs, from expanding private school vouchers to limiting teacher tenure to increasing charter schools.

Common Core is the result of years of whining by the higher education and business communities. Because one educator’s A+ is another’s C-, many high school valedictorians were arriving unprepared on college campuses. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers began developing the benchmarks that would be called Common Core. In 2009, President Barack Obama embraced the initiative and tied the standards to the disbursal of federal funds to local schools.

In October 2013, Jindal released a prepared statement saying he shared the concerns some state legislators articulated in a letter a few weeks earlier.

In March, Jindal raised questions about Common Core, and the State Capitol was flooded with opponents. By May, Jindal’s broad hints had morphed into outright condemnation: “centralized planning didn’t work in Russia … and it won’t work in education.”

Still the Legislature rebuffed several attempts to change the standards before adjourning on June 2. Since then, Jindal has used executive orders and written letters designed to extricate the state from Common Core and the tests that go along with the standards.

Time magazine reported chuckles when Emmett McGroarty, executive director at the American Principles Project, a conservative advocacy organization, told a Family Research Council forum Wednesday that Election Day is “not going to be pretty for a lot of Republican governors.”

On the other hand, the two Republicans who have announced they want to succeed Jindal — U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — went out of their way last week to back Common Core, as does the announced Democratic candidate, state Rep. John Bel Edwards.

But 2015 is a long way off. Ultimately, the Legislature will decide next spring just how and what academic standards Louisiana students will have to master. In the meantime, the fight will be decided by judges when Jindal squares off against Roemer and White in state district courts.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.