La. Common Core debate rancorous

The political brawl over Common Core has mushroomed into the biggest education fight in Louisiana in decades, veteran education officials said.

Not only is the state’s top school board fighting with Gov. Bobby Jindal, which is highly unusual, but panel members are publicly battling with one another, and Jindal has stopped just short of accusing his hand-picked state Superintendent of Education John White of breaking the law.

Meanwhile, White has said the governor is misreading state law.

The superintendent also has said legal action, which could be highly embarrassing to a governor with 2016 presidential ambitions, is one of several options on the table.

Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is a former Jindal ally who says the governor’s opposition to Common Core is tied to his political ambitions.

“I can’t think of anything that has had this much controversy,” said Linda Johnson, who served on BESE from 1999-2011.

The state is no stranger to ugly fights over public schools.

In 2012, Jindal pushed a sweeping package of education changes through the Legislature despite howls from opponents that they were run over.

However, the issue has quieted since then, even amid court challenges.

In 1999, the state launched new rules that required fourth- and eighth-graders to pass a skills test known as LEAP for promotion, which triggered protests from some parents who said it was wrong to link promotions to a single exam.

But that controversy cannot compare to the political war over Common Core, said Johnson, who was on BESE during LEAP’s rocky rollout.

“It was never like the controversy going on now,” Johnson said. “This is daily.”

The topic took off on Sept. 23 when Jindal, in response to a letter from a Common Core critic, said he was concerned that public school classrooms would be saddled with a “federalized curriculum” sparked by the overhaul.

Spats over the new academic standards in reading, writing and math have been nearly daily fare since the March 10 start of the session.

The issue sparked nearly three months of arguments, late-night hearings and tearful parents at the Legislature.

The governor, who formerly backed Common Core, ignited the latest round of arguments when he announced in mid-June that he had issued executive orders to get the state out of the standards and shelve the tests that are supposed to measure what students know and how they compare to students in other states.

That triggered a special BESE meeting on July 1, a vote to hire special legal counsel to challenge Jindal’s bid to squash test plans and a series of press conferences and counter-press conferences by Jindal, White, Roemer, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols and others.

“This is the first time there has been anything like this,” said Leslie Jacobs, a former BESE member who played a major role in creating Louisiana’s public school accountability system.

Jacobs noted that, until now, former Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco and Jindal were aligned with BESE in the state’s latest push to improve public schools.

Those changes included LEAP, the takeover of public schools in New Orleans, the expansion of vouchers statewide and the push to make it harder for teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection called tenure.

“BESE stayed aligned,” Jacobs said. “The governor has always gotten the superintendent he wanted, and they worked cooperatively together and BESE worked with the governor.”

All that has changed.

White, Roemer, BESE Vice President Jim Garvey and Treasurer Holly Boffy are leading efforts to come up with new tests for the upcoming school year, as long as BESE and the state Department of Education determine the questions.

On the other side are Jane Smith, a Jindal appointee, Lottie Beebe and Carolyn Hill, who generally side with the governor, oppose any legal action and who find fault with Common Core and how it has been implemented.

A meeting between Jindal and White on Thursday failed to produce any progress.

Which officials will decide test questions is the key stumbling block.

“The unfortunate thing is superintendents, teachers, parents and, most importantly, the students of Louisiana also find themselves in the middle of the debate,” White said.

The scope of the Common Core debate also sets it apart, with local, state and even national ramifications.

With many schools starting in just over three weeks, district officials do not know what, if any, standardized tests students will be taking.

On the state level, annual grades for public schools and teacher evaluations are linked to a Common Core rollout that may or may not happen.

In a scathing report aimed mostly at Jindal, the Public Affairs Research Council said the fight could carry long-term consequences.

“This mess is potentially significant enough to damage the national profile of the state,” according to the PAR review.

Barry Erwin, president of the pro-Common Core Council for a Better Louisiana, recalled that former Gov. Buddy Roemer’s mid-1980s push to boost teacher oversight sparked a major controversy.

“It was huge, but it was still a traditional legislative fight,” Erwin said. “I can’t think of anything that remotely compares to the level we are at on this thing.”

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.