James Gill: Meet the two John Whites

By James Gill

Confusion reigns on the subject of public education in Louisiana, but we can clear it up easily enough by explaining where the various players stand.

State Superintendent of Education John White is a strong proponent of sticking with Common Core, whereby the states cop a bunch of federal money if they accept national benchmarks for student achievement.

Contrast that with the attitude of state Superintendent of Education John White, who is passing up a chance for $44 million to support pre-K programs on grounds that federal funding for education has become a political “flashpoint.”

White says that “is not a distraction or an environment to which I believe our early childhood progress should be exposed.”

If there are two John Whites, that is perfectly understandable, for the federal government is looking somewhat schizo too.

The feds are eager to ensure Louisiana never returns to the bad old days when black kids were trapped in inferior, segregated schools.

The feds evidently would prefer they remained trapped in inferior, integrated schools, and have filed a lawsuit to block the voucher program that offers a way out.

Vouchers being Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea, he is naturally furious over the lawsuit and has written to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, inviting them to meet him at one of the private schools that accept state-subsidized students transferred from schools adjudged as failing.

Jindal may not be ambivalent about vouchers, but on other education issues, he also wants to have it both ways.

He was gung-ho for Common Core even before the state Board of Secondary and Elementary Education signed on for it three years ago, but lately has taken to pussy-footing as anti-federal hysteria mounts in his right-wing constituency.

Agitated parents and teachers meanwhile pack parish school board meetings to protest the new standards are too tough for Louisiana students.

“We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C., standards,” Jindal says, which doesn’t give the impression he is aiming all that high.

But he also avers, “We support rigor and high academic standards that help ensure Louisiana students are able to compete with every state and every country in the world. What we do not support is a national or federalized curriculum.”

Common Core, which was established by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, leaves local authorities to decide how their students can be brought up to snuff in various subjects.

Common targets no doubt lead to considerable curricular similarities, but Common Core seems to be just what Jindal is advocating, even if it appears impossible to take part in the great education debate without wanting to have it both ways.

Jindal can be relied upon to remain steadfast to take whatever side offers more promise for his own political future, but he doesn’t need to make his mind up yet. For now, he is content to take a stand designed to upset nobody, and plays for time by asking White and BESE to weigh the arguments for withdrawing from Common Core.

White’s support for Common Core has been so uncompromising that a spontaneous change of heart is inconceivable.

Jindal’s appointees do not last long if they disagree with him, and White did not budge even when Jindal started to waver.

Chances are Jindal’s misgivings were just for show, and Louisiana, in common with just about every other state in the union, will continue to accept the Common Core standards that are supposed to help America close the educational gap. If Louisiana opts out, they’ll say we must be dumb.

But it’s vouchers that Jindal has decided offer the best chance for a cheap political stunt right now, and political stunts don’t get much cheaper than a sham invite for the president and the attorney general to look into the eyes of voucher recipients and explain why they must be transferred back to the crummy public schools whence they came.

Jindal no doubt would choose the school carefully, since plenty of the private schools in the voucher program are not only crummy too, but plug creationism into the bargain.

The suit in any case merely requires court approval before any more students are taken out of public schools in districts subject to desegregation orders.

Jindal believes it is perverse of the feds to put obstacles in the way of mostly black students just for the sake of preserving racial balance in the public schools that have proven incapable of educating them.

It is a ticklish question. In fact, it’s hard not to be of two minds about it.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com.