John White swipes at Jindal over Common Core debate

Rift between superintendent, Jindal widens

“You deserve clarity, you deserve a long-term plan, you deserve not to have standards and curriculum and assessments tossed about in the morning headlines like they can be changed with the waving of a magic wand.” John White, state education superintendent

John White, the state’s top education official, said Tuesday that educators deserve to know that Louisiana is committed to following through with its adoption of Common Core academic standards, taking an implicit swipe at lawmakers who have tried to derail implementation and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is still threatening to do so.

Speaking to thousands of teachers gathered in New Orleans for a conference on the transition, White said, “You deserve clarity, you deserve a long-term plan, you deserve not to have standards and curriculum and assessments tossed about in the morning headlines like they can be changed with the waving of a magic wand.”

Louisiana has been moving toward the Common Core since 2010, gearing up for a new set of standards spelling out which skills students should master in each grade. White, the state’s education superintendent, has been warning for months that any last-minute retreat would leave school systems in disarray.

His remarks came a day after the close of the legislative session in Baton Rouge, where the state’s trajectory toward full implementation of the Common Core came out unscathed despite dozens of bills related to the new standards.

But the governor has been increasingly critical of the Common Core, and his views on the subject are under a microscope. Jindal is widely expected to run for president in 2016, and the Common Core, which has attracted growing criticism on the right, will almost certainly play a role in that election.

Some state lawmakers argue that Jindal could still block Louisiana from buying Common Core-aligned tests the state was planning to adopt next year — something the governor said last week he would consider.

“This whole process has been rushed, and now we are going to be deliberate and get the next steps right,” Jindal said in a statement Tuesday, again stopping short of any specific decision. “Education is best left to local control, and we will act to ensure that remains the case in Louisiana.”

White, who has challenged the idea that Jindal could scrap the Common Core unilaterally, did not go into specifics Tuesday, but he argued that teachers deserve an end to uncertainty on the issue.

“For years, we have been walking this journey,” he said. “Each leg of the trip has provided some challenge, some doubt, some controversy. Now, as we turn the final corner, we see a long, straight road ahead. And we policymakers owe teachers consistency. Now we owe you clarity. Now we owe you time to settle in and lead the way.”

The dueling comments between White and Jindal over the past few weeks have opened a jarring public divide between two officials who have usually been seen as close allies. Jindal helped install White as head of the Louisiana Department of Education in the first place, and the two men worked in tandem on a broader education agenda during previous legislative sessions.

In his latest remarks, White seemed to throw down a challenge to the governor, who only last week told a group of Republican activists that the Common Core amounts to an intrusion by “Washington bureaucrats.” Conservatives attending the Republican National Leadership Conference in New Orleans — worried the Common Core is being forced on states by the Obama administration — welcomed the governor’s remarks.

The teachers who gathered from around the state to hear White speak Tuesday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — nearly 4,000 of them, according to the Department of Education — offered the superintendent polite but somewhat restrained applause.

Many teachers around Louisiana have ambivalent feelings about the Common Core themselves, generally not because they oppose the standards, but because they want more time to prepare for new tests and more help from state officials.

In interviews afterward, some teachers mentioned that guidelines on where to find Common Core-aligned textbooks and other materials came out only recently, and they pointed to a lack of funding for the new computers that students will eventually need to take the tests. Some declined to speak for attribution, worried about angering superiors back home.

Jacquequel Johnson, an instructional specialist in St. James Parish, said her school had a good experience testing out new Common Core tests that Louisiana is planning to adopt next year. “I loved the rigor,” she said.

“It was all kind of thrown at us,” said Shanette Armstrong, a second-grade teacher from Monroe, talking about the transition to the new standards, which she supports. “I enjoyed what White said,” she added. “I just hope it’s all true.”