Stephanie Grace: Jindal’s position on Common Core bears watching

There’s no real evidence that Gov. Bobby Jindal is going back on his support for Louisiana’s participation in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a national movement to set consistent standards on what American students should know about math and English.

Jindal was on board from the movement’s start back in 2008, when the National Governors Association developed the program. Education Superintendent John White has also touted Common Core as a way to make sure Louisiana students can compete with their peers nationwide.

Yet the politics surrounding the program — not to mention the governor’s personal politics — have caused at least one good-government group to raise entirely understandable concerns over his commitment.

In certain very conservative and Tea Party-influenced circles, Common Core is becoming increasingly controversial. The sort of critics who tend to see big-government conspiracies all over are arguing that the program amounts to yet another federal takeover — even though it was developed largely by states; even though it has support from big companies such as ExxonMobil; even though participation is voluntary (though the federal government does offer incentives to join); and even though it offers plenty of flexibility and has been embraced by a number of Republican governors.

Jindal came face to face with some of those critics when he spoke earlier this month to the RedState national gathering in New Orleans. He didn’t pull back his support, but he did promise the crowd of conservative activists that he’d oppose any effort to impose a “national curriculum.”

That was enough to prompt the Council for a Better Louisiana to issue a pointed public plea that Jindal block out the noise and stay the course.

“Particularly in conservative political circles, Common Core is arousing feisty, sometimes name-calling debates that are becoming a distraction to efforts for serious education reform,” CABL’s commentary said. Noting the recent emergence of efforts to “stop the Common Core” in several states, CABL scoffed at the prospect of a national takeover and urged Louisiana to “stick to the Common Core in the face of mounting politically charged pressures to pull back.”

CABL President Barry Erwin said he issued the new commentary to counter some “very misleading information” in circulation.

“Before it takes too much of a foothold in Louisiana, we wanted to try to put some things in perspective,” Erwin said. “We know Common Core’s not perfect, but we also know that these are good standards, and they’re more rigorous than our standards. We want people to understand that this is the right direction.”

The most public effort to stop Common Core in Louisiana to date came from state Sen. A.G. Crowe, who filed a resolution during the spring legislative session urging the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to pull the plug. Crowe raised the specter of “nationally based standards and tests primarily developed by non-governmental organizations and unelected, unaccountable boards and consortia based outside the state of Louisiana” that have been “unduly influenced by intervention of the federal government.” Although the resolution made it out of committee, Crowe’s measure died in the full Senate, which didn’t just shelve it but had it formally withdrawn from the chamber’s files. That’s the symbolic equivalent of not just a “no,” but a “hell, no.”

Helping to drive the nails in resolution’s coffin was Jindal ally and Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, who said he didn’t want anything “casting any disparagement on the importance of raising the bar.” Both Appel and Crowe are Republicans.

The Republican National Committee recently passed a resolution calling Common Core “a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” The Heritage Foundation and Heartland Institute are agitating against the program. Some of Jindal’s fellow GOP governors are showing signs of wavering.

And frankly, Jindal’s behavior on other issues have given Common Core proponents good reason to worry. Jindal has been playing to the absolutist right a lot in recent years. He’s worked so hard to maintain a track record free of tax increases that he vetoed a piddly 4-cent cigarette tax renewal, which lawmakers ultimately attached to a constitutional amendment that didn’t require his signature. And although he’s supported expanding Medicaid in the past, he’s now adamantly opposed to accepting federal money available to expand the program as part of Obamacare.

If Common Core becomes a front-burner concern among Republican primary voters heading into 2016, then the pressure on Jindal and other potential hopefuls will only mount. So it’s no wonder that CABL and other interested parties have their doubts. The good news for Jindal is that he can easily reassure them. All he has to do is ignore the conspiracy theorists, stand by his initial instincts, and not let his personal ambitions stand in the way of what’s best for Louisiana’s students.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.