Governor goes fuzzy on Common Core

Louisiana politicians are calling for the state to pull out of the Common Core. The governor’s support looks shaky. And a group called Stop the Common Core in Louisiana just held a rally outside the state board of education offices in Baton Rouge.

It seems like a dire, or at least precarious, moment for the new academic standards that Louisiana has been moving toward over the past three years, along with most other states.

And yet, in another way, support for the Common Core looks as solid as ever. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s handpicked state education superintendent, John White, is an unequivocal backer of the new standards. So is Jindal ally Chas Roemer, head of the state board of education. And so are the chairmen of the education committees in both houses of the Legislature, officials who have championed the governor’s education agenda.

In other words, Louisiana is going through a slightly bewildering interlude in the politics of education, one filled with pitched rhetoric from tea-party-backed politicians who worry the Common Core is a scheme by the federal government to introduce a national — and perhaps liberal — curriculum, but also one in which few if any important dominos appear close to toppling in a way that might lead the state to abandon the new standards.

To hear some officials speak of the controversy, it seems almost like a sudden, inexplicable fever.

“I’m really taken aback by the sudden change of events,” said state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “This stuff has been in place for years.”

Appel is emblematic of the Common Core’s main constituency in Louisiana, a business-minded conservative who worries the state is falling behind in preparing students to compete for jobs in a modern economy. The Common Core is supposed to lay out a set of clear standards for what students should know when they complete each grade, with school performance scores, letter grades and teacher evaluations all tied in part to how well pupils perform on new exams.

Supporters of the new standards have grown more concerned recently about whether Louisiana will stick with these new standards mainly because Jindal is walking such a fine line in his comments on the subject.

Sensitive to conservative skepticism about anything that’s perceived as a federal initiative, the governor has adopted some of the rhetoric about a “federal curriculum” but so far has stopped short of saying whether he wants Louisiana to drop the new standards.

Significantly, Appel, the main player in pushing Jindal’s education agenda through the Senate the past few years, said he hasn’t heard anything from the governor’s office about introducing any bills on the Common Core at the next legislative session.

Nor has Baton Rouge Republican Stephen Carter, Appel’s counterpart in the House. “There are very few people I’ve talked to who have voiced any concern at all,” Carter said. “I haven’t checked the temperature of everybody, but virtually everyone who has called me is in support.”

Carter said he suspects that the furthest Jindal might go would be to ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, known as BESE, to take a closer look at the details and perhaps make minor tweaks in the new tests the state will be adopting next year.

In part, the idea is that Jindal’s recent comments represent more of a political shift than a substantive one, something other Republican governors have been accused of lately. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the state to pull out of the consortium of states that is developing the new exams, but he did not say that Florida students won’t be taking them.

Still, Jindal’s inaction so far hasn’t stopped both supporters and opponents of the Common Core from redoubling their efforts recently, worried or hopeful that other lawmakers might be able to drum up enough votes for a bill that would force Louisiana to drop the Common Core altogether.

Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, has already promised to try.

And groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry have already started organizing to fight him, holding meetings with lawmakers around the state and making efforts to counter what they view as erroneous information about the Common Core that has proliferated online.

“They are standards, not curriculum,” wrote LABI President Stephen Waguespack on the group’s website Thursday. “The final decisions on the curriculum and the lessons that will be taught are developed in the local school districts, in some instances with assistance from the state, should that district choose that assistance.”

Waguespack’s support is another important political indicator. He used to serve as Jindal’s chief of staff, and was one of the governor’s three appointees on BESE, another governing body with a direct say in whether Louisiana continues to implement the new standards.

The board has never had to vote on an issue where Jindal and Louisiana’s top education official, White, were at odds. And it’s not clear it will have to on the Common Core. Waguespack’s public support for the standards at LABI is one clue suggesting the governor won’t be pushing BESE for any drastic measures.

Another is the rhetoric coming from elected members of the board who won their seats at least in part with the governor’s help. Roemer, the board’s chairman, hasn’t softened his support for moving ahead with implementation.

Jim Garvey, a Republican on the board who represents most of St. Tammany and Jefferson Parish, said he has been giving the Common Core issue careful scrutiny but hasn’t found a reason to oppose the standards.

Like other Republicans who have tried to strike a careful political balance, Garvey took pains during a recent interview to stress that he has the same concerns about the federal government intruding on local autonomy that other conservatives do. But he said the Common Core does not amount to such an intrusion.

“I’ve heard maybe 40 different negative claims, and I’ve spent days and days and days researching every single one,” Garvey said. “I have not yet found a valid negative claim of any substance.”