James Gill: Vitter’s dithering on Common Core

David Vitter is evidently out to convince voters that he would be a different kind of governor, and it must be admitted that he is making progress.

Take Common Core, for instance. Gov. Bobby Jindal was for it before he was against it, and Vitter, who used to be against it, has suddenly come out for it. You could hardly wish for a starker contrast than that.

Distinctions between politicians occupying a similar position on the ideological spectrum are necessarily subtle, and Vitter has played the right wing’s Tweedledee in the U.S. Senate to its Tweedledum in the governor’s mansion. But they never appeared to like each other much, and, as the election approaches, Vitter is staking out his own ground, albeit with the caution common to candidates with encouraging poll numbers to protect.

Thus, Vitter has said he would “look at” accepting the federal dollars for expanded Medicaid coverage in Louisiana that Jindal has rejected out of hand. But, since Vitter would only consider the possibility if Medicaid underwent unspecified “fundamental reforms,” this is not exactly a bold campaign pledge.

Common Core, however, offers an opportunity to disagree completely with Jindal, although that has only recently become the case. Just after he announced in January that he would run for governor, Vitter sent out a letter touting his conservative credentials to “a select few” — “patriots who care about the future of our state” — who were invited to prove it by sending contributions to his campaign. In return he would “protect our citizens from heavy-handed big government education policies like Common Core.”

That put him firmly on the same side as Jindal, who had, however, required a 180-degree shift to arrive there. After Common Core was developed, in part by the National Governors’ Association, Jindal in 2009 enthusiastically endorsed the concept and was among the first to sign the memorandum of understanding whereby states committed to adopt it.

This seemed at the time something of a no-brainer, since holding Louisiana students to a national measure of achievement could only improve their prospects. They have been dim far too long.

But when President Barack Obama signaled his approval of Common Core, it became in the tea party imagination a federal plot to give us an education system worthy of North Korea. “Commie Core” the GOP wags called it. This is not the Mad Hatter’s tea party, but sometimes you have to wonder.

The rumblings on the right grew louder just as Jindal’s attention turned to the national stage. As he criss-crossed the country, he apparently figured that his slim hopes of the GOP presidential nomination rested on wooing the faction where Common Core is regarded as anathema.

His initial embrace of Common Core was long forgotten, as he threatened to ditch it in Louisiana by executive order. When the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education joined a lawsuit claiming Jindal was exceeding his authority, he countersued. Thus will confusion reign as schools resume this month.

Vitter, meanwhile, had a road to Damascus experience and announced, “I support the strong standards Louisiana now has in place and think Governor Jindal’s attempt to start from scratch right before the school year is very disruptive.” As it happens, his current stance plays well with business leaders, who figure Common Core will produce an abler workforce and whose support can be crucial for Republican candidates. But it is unlikely that many voters with a stake in public education will be looking for a Jindal clone.

Vitter is the early, strong favorite in the governor’s race, which is so far off that Common Core passions probably will have cooled before it is over. Regardless, Vitter is not promising to protect us from Common Core any more; instead, he will “take an aggressive, hands-on approach, get curriculum and implementation right.”

That should be enough to settle it. If Vitter wins, we will have a different kind of dithering governor.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.