The ABC’s of Politics
When Learning Goes Presidential
Jason Raish illustration
Shifts in education policy in the past few months are enough to make heads swivel like the upchucking demon in the Exorcist.
Louisiana has undergone a sea change in educational policy in the past two decades. Thankfully, important reforms made by former governors Mike Foster, a Republican, and Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, have held firm, surviving the usual kicking and screaming of many parents, teachers and school administrators.
Not so for Governor Bobby Jindal’s reforms. Most of the reform measures he backed are in retreat, delay or, in the case of the red-hot Common Core standards, facing a full-throttle, slash-and-burn attack from Jindal himself. Jindal’s reason for reversing his support for Common Core standards is so blatantly tied to his presidential ambitions that only the right wing of his political party, and some burned out educators and fearful parents, take him seriously. Cartoonish or not, as governor, his attempt to curry favor with ultra conservatives could undo years of progress in improving Louisiana’s dismal student performance.
Jindal, who championed Common Core until last year, now wants to lower academic standards while educators develop a replacement. Even U.S. Senator David Vitter dropped his support for Common Core soon after showing interest in occupying the governor’s office after Jindal departs. Unfortunately for educational progress, anti-federalist voters have a powerful grip on Republican candidates because they vote in higher numbers in primaries.
Much of the opposition to Common Core stems from the fact that the U.S. Department of Education supports it. The DOE requires states to adopt the standards to be eligible for some federal grants. Common Core only sets guidelines for what students nationally should be able to do in such subjects as English, reading and math for each grade level. It doesn’t require a defined curriculum to prepare students for meeting them, a fact that opponents refuse to acknowledge.
Nonetheless, Common Core – adopted voluntarily by a vast majority of states – has led to charges of federal intrusion into state authority over schools. Conservatives didn’t grouse so loudly, however, when one of their own, former President George W. Bush, pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to adopt tougher standardized testing measures in order to receive federal education funding. That legislation was far more federally intrusive than current DOE policies, but apparently that was different: President Barack Obama, a Democrat, wasn’t in office then.
Fortunately, most Louisiana business leaders and many Republican members of the state Legislature continue to support Common Core. The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) also refuses to bow to Jindal’s election-minded political maneuvers. Educators have been preparing for the standards since 2010, spending untold hours creating new lesson plans.
Even the courts have so far rejected Jindal’s attempts to skewer the standards. In the final days of March, a Baton Rouge judge threw out a lawsuit he filed alleging that BESE didn’t follow state law when it began Common Core linked standardized testing.
After the ruling, state Superintendent John White blasted Jindal’s politically motivated attempt to stop Common Core in a press release posted by the state DOE.
“Today’s court decision, dismissing an attempt by the Governor and legislators to force teachers back to the drawing board, is another validation that there is no academic or legal basis for the extremist path,” White said. “Louisiana deserves a professional plan, not a political plan.”
In March, 99 percent of Louisiana’s students took the test that measures how well they are meeting the new standards, the DOE’s website says. The high percentage of test takers indicates that parental opposition to Common Core isn’t as strong as saber-drawn opponents contend. Even so, the political battle has affected other reform adopted at Jindal’s urging.
Legislative action that requires the DOE to assign letter grades to public schools based on student performance and an evaluation system partially based on teachers’ classroom test scores have been put on hold by BESE. Teachers deemed “ineffective” using student test scores as an evaluation measurement could have been fired under legislation sponsored by Jindal. Raising academic standards at the same time as teachers were to be judged according to test scores caused panic. Lawsuits and pressure from teachers’ unions led to delays and modifications of these policies.
The mistake Jindal made was adopting too many punishing actions at the same time. The punitive tone of his agenda frightened educators. Piling Common Core on top of tough evaluation measures created hysteria, and then Jindal’s sudden opposition to the standards caused confusion.
Over time, higher standards will improve student performance, but in the short run, test scores are expected to decrease. As a consequence, BESE has wisely slowed down implementation of Common Core to reduce stress on educators while maintaining its overall commitment to the standards.
Republicans have led a successful national crusade for education reform for two decades. They have championed charter schools, accountability measures and data-driven evaluations of schools. Republican office holders endorsed Common Core standards with equally concerned Democratic leaders when statistics showed a pattern of decline compared to the nation’s economic competitors.
Because of this praiseworthy history, Jindal and other opportunistic politicians’ retreat from education reform is mind-blowing and ultimately tragic.