Stephanie Grace: A political meltdown in Common Core

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

Is there a better example of how much the nation’s political winds have shifted in a few short years than the ruckus over Common Core education standards?

It’s hard to think of a topic where the dynamic has moved quite so dramatically, particularly for Republican politicians who worked with the National Governors Association to shape the new K-12 standards, which are aimed at making the American workforce more competitive on the world stage.

With Gov. Bobby Jindal’s backing, Louisiana joined most other states in adopting Common Core; the standards debuted in classrooms this fall, and the new testing regimen is supposed to start next year.

But while Jindal and his fellow governors attracted little notice when the idea was hatched in 2009, they’re hearing plenty now.

In a long look at the national landscape published last week, Politico notes that advocates, while backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many corporate CEOs, are scrambling to react to a tea party-style assault on the very idea of Common Core, which opponents liken to a national takeover of education policy.

Similarly well-funded opponents, from the Heritage Foundation to FreedomWorks, are mounting a movement aimed at stopping Common Core, using tried-and-true tactics such as suggested talking points and activist training. Conservative talkers such as Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin also are spreading the word, and the Republican National Committee passed a resolution opposing the program.

Contributing to the fervor, it seems, is the fact that President Barack Obama supports Common Core, and his administration has offered incentives to states that adopt the standards. Some opponents have lumped the fight in with opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and have even taken to calling the program “ObamaCore.”

The results are apparent in places such as St. Tammany Parish, where local activists are attending School Board meetings, organizing and, in some cases, raising fears that their children are being indoctrinated with left-wing propaganda.

Advocates such as the Council for a Better Louisiana and Louisiana Association of Business and Industry are trying to counter by issuing pro-Common Core commentary. During the last legislative session, state Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, a Jindal ally, helped quash a resolution by state Sen. A.G. Crowe urging Louisiana to abandon the effort.

Jindal, though, has been relatively quiet. At a meeting of conservative activists in New Orleans in the summer, he fended off questions by pointing out that Common Core does not represent a national curriculum, which he’d absolutely oppose. But since Common Core has become a hot topic in conservative circles, he has done little to promote the idea.

That may be because he doesn’t want to be an outlier in the party’s conservative wing. While Jindal initially had plenty of company among Republican governors in backing Common Core, some of the most prominent, such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Georgia’s Sonny Perdue, have since left office, and their successors are hedging. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage first signed on to Common Core but now says he doesn’t believe in it.

Yet against that daunting backdrop, one of the Republican Party’s best-known backers picked last week to double down.

Speaking at the National Press Club, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose successor Rick Scott is facing a spirited challenge to his state’s participation, launched a rare, full-throated defense of the program.

Common Core is not a national takeover, Bush said, but “45 states that have voluntarily come together to create fewer, higher, deeper standards, that, when you benchmark them to the best of the world, they’re world-class. I’m for that.

“This was all done with a sense of urgency that our country is at risk unless we raise expectations significantly higher, assess where we are in a meaningful way, and then recognize that we have abject failure across the board, and we’d better do something about it,” he continued.

Bush argued that the fight over Common Core is all about politics, and acknowledged that there’s “a lot of heat right now.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we have huge swaths of the next generation of Americans that can’t calculate math, that can’t read, their expectations of their own lives are way too low,” he said. “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine. I’m not.”

Sharing the stage as Bush launched his impassioned offensive was none other than Jindal, who was there to pick up support from GOP leaders for his fight against the Obama administration’s legal challenge to his voucher program.

That’s an easy issue for Jindal to take on, given his politics and base. But it was Bush who came off as the authentic, thoughtful leader, someone willing to fight for better education even if it means staring down one of his party’s core constituencies.

We can only hope that Jindal was taking notes.

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