Tea party opposition to Common Core could have implications

The politics of education have been scrambling typical party divisions for decades. But over the past few months a new force has entered the debate, complicating the lives of Louisiana educators and politicians alike: the tea party.

In Louisiana and across the country, officials implementing a new set of academic standards known as the Common Core are running into a backlash from local tea party groups who fear they amount to a national curriculum for K-12 education, foisted on the states by an overbearing Obama administration.

The Common Core’s supporters say the new standards are no such thing. They insist that the Common Core is only a set of guidelines for what students should know when they complete each grade, measured by a new set of annual exams that will replace Louisiana’s LEAP tests. The federal government did not design the Common Core, they point out, and local educators will still be the one’s mapping out how to prepare students to clear the higher bar.

So far, the pushback has not slowed Louisiana’s implementation of the new standards, which has been underway for years. But it could have real implications for Republicans like Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy. They’re feeling the same pressure from tea party firebrands that has endangered more moderate conservatives in other states, and its forcing them to walk a careful line on the Common Core.

For the business and good-government groups that have lined up behind the new standards, the worst-case scenario would be a kind of accidental alliance between their new opponents on the right and their more traditional antagonists: left-leaning critics of test-based accountability and the state’s teachers unions, who worry the Common Core is being implemented too quickly and without enough support for teachers.

How this debate plays out could have a broad influence on public opinion, coming just as parents are beginning to see how their children’s teachers are adapting to the new standards in the classroom.

“The opponents of Common Core are spending this time organizing themselves better,” said Barry Erwin, head of the Council for a Better Louisiana. “If they can get a message out that frightens people, you never know what could happen.”

The state board of education in Louisiana first signed on to the Common Core back in July 2010 with relatively little to-do. The idea was to create a clear, uniform set of expectations for students at each grade level, spurred by fears that the U.S. is falling behind in getting its children ready to compete globally for jobs.

A consortium of states, including Louisiana, used a grant from the federal government to develop a new set of annual tests.

This year, Louisiana tested out the first Common Core-based exam questions. Next year, all of the questions will be getting harder, and the year after that, exams in Louisiana will be fully up to the new Common Core standards. In all, 45 states and Washington D.C. have begun implementation.

Until recently, the debate over Common Core has taken place mostly among education officials, policy wonks and union leaders. Some doubt any shift in standards will really improve results in the classroom. Others worry that too fast a transition to new exams could be jarring for teachers, who more and more face the prospect of losing their jobs over poor results.

But with full implementation getting closer, the Common Core began drawing fire from the political right. In March, the conservative talk show host Glenn Beck did a series of television segments on the issue, calling the Common Core “diabolical” and warning that it “will absolutely destroy us.”

The charge is that Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, forced the Common Core on states by strongly hinting that grant money and waivers from the more onerous provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law would depend on states adopting it.

And there is undoubtedly some truth to idea that the Obama administration has tried to influence education policy at the state level. States that wanted a piece of the $4 billion available from Obama’s Race to the Top program had to show how their schools were lifting the bar for students and teachers, and Louisiana’s application does outline how the state is implementing the Common Core.

So does the state’s application for a No Child Left Behind waiver. Rather than wait for Congress to rewrite the Bush-era education law, the Obama administration asked states to tweak the law themselves within guidelines set by the Department of Education. Superintendent John White drew up the application, then revised it based on federal input.

But unlike Obama’s health care overhaul, the waiver process drew no objections from Louisiana’s conservative governor.

In truth, Jindal and the president are not so far apart on education policy issues, and the waiver brought changes that conservatives could get behind, toughening up standards for schools and dismantling some constraints on how administrators can spend federal dollars.

White, who won his job as the state’s top education official with Jindal’s backing, pointed out that Louisiana never got much money from Race to the Top but stuck with the Common Core standards anyway. He argues that federal intrusion into the schoolhouse is a legitimate concern, not because of the Common Core but because of the strings that have been attached to federal money for decades, strings the state has been working to loosen.

“The federal and state governments have been asserting their authority for years and that does need to be addressed,” White said. “But that has nothing to do with a basic description of how well a kid should be educated.”

Even as the Common Core reshapes Louisiana’s annual exams, it’s up to local districts or schools to write the curriculum and daily lesson plans. Neither the federal government nor the state has mandated anything that specific.

But some conservative groups argue that local educators have no choice but to bend what they do in the classroom toward the new standards. In a widely circulated paper this month, former Texas schools chief Robert Scott acknowledged that the Common Core is not a curriculum per se, but argued that the standards will “drive how local curricula are sequenced” and “constrain some materials teachers use.”

In Louisiana, that argument has brought heat for the governor from the political right. Back in May, state Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, sought unsuccessfully to force Louisiana out of the Common Core, arguing that the new standards had been “unduly influenced by the intervention of the federal government.”

Jindal himself has given no indication that he would back out of the Common Core, though he told a gathering of anxious conservative activists in New Orleans last month that he would resist any true “national curriculum” and pointed out that decisions about specific standards are ultimately up to the state board of education. (He did not point out that he has three appointees on the board and helped others get elected.)

Bill Cassidy, hoping to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., next year, has been trying to strike the same balance. He faces a challenge from the right in Rob Maness, a tea party candidate who called the Common Core a “roundabout” way of imposing a national curriculum in an interview last week and argued that the state should drop it.

Cassidy’s office declined to make him available for an interview, citing scheduling conflicts. In an email, his press secretary, John Cummins, said Cassidy “believes it’s best when parents and teachers in Louisiana, not Washington or the Department of Education, determine Louisiana education policy.” But he stopped short of saying that Cassidy wants Louisiana to drop the standards.

The ambivalent language on Common Core coming from some of the state’s top Republicans has produced anxiety among groups that have lobbied for it. Aside from another possible attempt to scrap it at the Legislature, they are anticipating more blowback from the left when discussions begin later this year about how to incorporate Common Core into the state’s system for holding schools accountable.

White has signaled that he will propose measures to soften the impact when tests get harder next year, since schools are assigned letter grades based on exam results and students can be left behind a grade if they don’t pass. Doubtless, the state’s teachers unions will be joining the debate, pushing the state to slow implementation.

Groups including Stand for Children, the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Louisiana Alliance for Business and Industry have begun to churn out commentary on the subject and organize forums to combat what they take to be conspiracy theories on the subject.

“Let’s hope the commitment from state legislators and policymakers remains strong and they fully implement the Common Core,” wrote Bridget Neiland, LABI’s point person on education policy. “Louisiana’s future in no small part depends on it.”