Gov. Jindal, education allies diverging on Common Core

The ongoing battle over the fate of Common Core is driving another split between Gov. Bobby Jindal and his key allies in education — this time over his claim that he has the power to unilaterally scrap student testing at the heart of the new standards.

Jindal clearly thinks he can and says doing so strictly on his orders is “a very viable option” if lawmakers fail to act.

But Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and state Superintendent of Education John White, both of whom are traditional Jindal allies, dispute the governor, back the tests and think pulling out would cause chaos.

Roemer and White contend that it would require the support of three officials — Jindal, Roemer and White — to pull the state out of the Common Core testing consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

“I don’t believe that represents the facts, the idea of him unilaterally doing so,” Roemer said of the governor’s ordering Louisiana out of the tests.

The issue is more than just an arcane legal spat.

If Jindal orders the state out of the tests, it could spark a lawsuit on whether he can do so, and it could trigger a new round of debate on how a nationally watched governor switched from being a Common Core advocate to a leader who pulled the plug on the tests that go with it.

The latest dispute stems from sessionlong arguments over Common Core, new standards in reading, writing and math set to take full effect for the 2014-15 school year.

Students in grades three through eight are scheduled to take PARCC tests in spring 2015, which would allow comparisons among 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Legislation to scrap Common Core, and the PARCC tests, failed in the House Education Committee earlier this month. However, eight state House members sent Jindal a letter April 14 saying they believe the governor has the authority to block the tests, which prompted Jindal’s reply that such action is an option.

State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, one of the eight, said it is absurd to think that Jindal, like governors in other states, could not order the state to scrap test plans.

“If the governor wants to change his mind and get out and he can’t unless the whole political landscape changes, that doesn’t make sense to anybody,” Geymann said in an interview.

Jindal was one of three top officials who signed a memorandum of understanding for state participation in PARCC on June 9, 2010.

The others were then-state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek and Keith Guice, who was president of BESE at the time.

White cited language on page 9 of the MOU to argue that leaving the PARCC consortium would require the support of more than Jindal.

It reads, “At any time a state may withdraw from the consortium by providing written notice to the chair of the governing board, signed by the individuals holding the same positions that signed the MOU, at least 10 days prior to the effective date of the withdrawal, including an explanation of reasons for the withdrawal.”

“I have looked at the document and think it is clear,” Roemer said.

“To unwind that and all of a sudden go in another direction would be total dysfunction in our school system,” he said. “And I cannot imagine how much money it would cost us.”

White has made the same argument, and he said last week that dropping the tests would cause a “state of chaos” for teachers already planning for the exams next year.

Geymann said that, while he is aware of the MOU language cited by White and Roemer, the document is unenforceable, “poorly drafted” and would allow the governor to order Louisiana out of the test plans.

He said his views are based on “what I heard from all the legal folks that we talked to,” including attorneys for the state House of Representatives and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office.

Geymann also disputed comments that Jindal’s staff, including top aide Stafford Palmieri, has quietly assisted Common Core critics in their bid to derail the standards.

“Not at all, not at all,” he said. “Not one peep.”

State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who signed the letter to Jindal, said Louisiana’s situation is not unusual.

“Other states have signed this document (MOU), and their governors have been able to get them out of it,” he said.

Jindal should act now, Henry said. “If he is serious about it, he should just do it,” he said.

“Don’t wait for the session to end,” Henry said. “If he is concerned that signing the letter might not do it, then it is even more important that he do it while we are in session.

“If it does not work, we have to continue moving forward with ways to get out. So I think it is beneficial both ways for him to do it and just get it over with.”

Roemer said the tests included input from state educators — 26 by one count — and that pulling out now would be a huge mistake.

“All standardized tests have strengths and weaknesses to some degree,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you have to pick a testing instrument.”