While the inimitable Huey P. Long has gone down in history as “The Kingfish,” to his political opponents he was known by another, less flattering name, “The Dictator of Louisiana,” a reference to his unrelenting pursuit of power as governor, and subsequently as a United States Senator. Now, 80 years later, it may be time to revive that moniker, as Governor Bobby Jindal seems to be channeling Long’s authoritarian streak.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Governor Jindal announced his plan to jettison the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and block the adoption of the CCSS-aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests that students in grades 3 through 8 are scheduled to take this coming school year.
Jindal’s plan involves several lines of attack on Common Core. To start, the Governor issued an executive order requiring the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) to conduct a competitive bidding process for the state’s standardized tests, which he believes will preclude LDOE from administering PARCC next year as planned. Jindal also issued an executive order suspending rules adopted by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) last month approving the administration of the PARCC exams in the 2014-15 school year. Finally, the Governor sent letters to PARCC notifying the organization that Louisiana is withdrawing from the testing consortium, as well as to the Council for Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association informing them that Louisiana is no longer participating in Common Core.
For months, Jindal has been threatening to act unilaterally to derail CCSS and PARCC if the legislature failed to do so on its own. Yet while a handful of Tea Party-aligned anti-CCSS lawmakers made headlines by filing dozens of bills seeking to undermine Common Core, every single one of their proposals went down in defeat during the recently-concluded legislative session.
In April, representatives from a broad coalition of Louisiana’s leading business, civic, and education organizations came out in force to defeat two anti-CCSS proposals, House Bills 381 and 558. House Bill 381, sponsored by Rep. Brett Geymann and Rep. J. Rogers Pope, sought to suspend the implementation of CCSS while a 30-person commission developed new state standards and their accompanying tests over the next two years. House Bill 558, filed by Rep. Cameron Henry and Rep. Jerome “Dee” Richard, would have prohibited the administration of the Common Core-aligned PARCC exams. Although though Governor Jindal surprised everyone by submitting “green cards” in support of the measures, the House Education Committee voted 12-7 to kill both bills.
Furthermore, the House Appropriations Committee voted down House Bill 380, a backhanded attempt to throttle the adoption of CCSS by requiring LDOE to get legislative approval before spending state funds on “any assessment proposed or developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or any other equivalent national group.”
“When it comes to the controversial Common Core standards, we think the Legislature said a lot by what it did not do. The question is whether Gov. Bobby Jindal is listening.”
Given his announcement on Wednesday, apparently Bobby Jindal wasn’t listening and that’s probably because he’s preoccupied with his all-but-certain Presidential run in 2016. It’s been clear for months that Jindal’s focus has shifted from his responsibilities as Governor to his preparations for a national election campaign. When not writing goofy opinion pieces for USA Today, the New York Post, or the National Review, Jindal has spent much of the past year out-of-state, especially in early primary battlegrounds like Iowa. As a result, his approval rating among Louisiana voters has plummeted to a dismal 35%, making him one of the least popular governors in the country.1
Jindal had been a staunch advocate for Common Core ever since Louisiana committed to the standards in 2010; in fact, Jindal was featured in a pro-Common Core video released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in April. Thus his sudden reversal on CCSS is clearly aimed at wooing the right-wing voters who turnout for Republican primaries, especially those Tea Party voters who can decide a race, as Eric Cantor’s recent defeat so vividly illustrated.
Considering his presidential aspirations, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Jindal changed his position on Common Core, but his attempt to circumvent the legislature and kill CCSS – in effect, by decree – represents a new low even by the seen-it-all standards of Louisiana politics. (Although, in another sense, it’s just the latest example of Jindal’s propensity for going overboard with ill-advised, politically-damaging stunts, such as bashing President Obama on the White House lawn or chastising his own party for “bedwetting” and “navel gazing.”)
Fortunately, Jindal’s attempt to side-step the democratic process has run into fierce resistance. Almost immediately following Jindal’s press conference, LDOE and BESE issued a press release entitled, “State To Continue Implementing Common Core, PARCC” in which BESE President Chas Roemer stated:
“Four years ago, our board committed to measuring learning in comparison with states across the country, and two years ago the Legislature put this plan into the law. BESE is continuing to implement that law.”
State Superintendent John White didn’t pull any punches in responding to Jindal’s announcement either, telling reporters:
“The state will continue to implement the Common Core Standards …this is a long term plan we have been working on for four years and committed to another 10 years of implementation. We are not willing to subject our children to last-minute changes to throw our system into educational chaos.”
Roemer and White’s sentiments were echoed by school district officials across the state, such as Michelle Blouin-Williams, Chief Academic Officer in Jefferson Parish – Louisiana’s largest school system – who stated:
“We are aligned with the Louisiana Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who have affirmed that we are to continue implementing CCSS and transitioning to PARCC in the 2014-15 school year as planned. The Jefferson Parish Public School System will continue to invest in the success of our students and teachers by ensuring high expectations for all.”
Now that the long-smoldering debate over Common Core has erupted into an all-out civil war, the two sides are likely headed for court. As both Roemer and White point out, according to the MOU signed with PARCC in 2010, Jindal doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally pull out of the consortium. In addition, as former BESE member Leslie Jacobs noted in a review of the legal questions involved, while the Governor does have the power to issue executive orders in the event of an emergency,
“…it is hard to argue that an issue that has been publicly discussed and vetted for 4 years and on which there were numerous bills debated this session is now an ‘emergency’ giving the governor this power.”
Regardless of the outcome in court, Bobby Jindal’s actions have – for now, at least – thrown Louisiana’s “public education system into a state of confusion.” With the start of a new school year only eight weeks away, Jindal is leaving the state’s teachers and students in the lurch. Instead, as an editorial in the Times-Picayune pointedly stated:
“Gov. Bobby Jindal went against the wishes of the Legislature, the state education superintendent, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, dozens of business and civic groups and common sense this week…as he often does these days, the governor decided his political interests were more important.”
While he may aspire to appear presidential, his actions are closer to dictatorial and only diminish his already-remote chances of becoming President. Apparently, that’s a lesson Bobby Jindal insists on learning the hard way.
Post-Script, 06/19/14: The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which is “considered the most powerful lobby in Louisiana,” released a pro-Common Core video today in response to Bobby Jindal’s attempt to ditch CCSS. The video features LABI President Stephen Waguespack, who formerly served as Governor Jindal’s Chief of Staff: