Jindal’s Common Core Crusade: Principle, Or Opportunism?

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Bobby Jindal’s recent June 24 announcement that he’s running for president has been a long time coming, but a key issue he hopes will define Candidate Jindal has been staked out more than a year in advance: Common Core.

Over the past year, the governor has emerged as the most vocal and most committed opponent of the standards. Jindal’s furious line of attack, however, masks an uncomfortable reality for the governor: He spent years as a strong cheerleader for Common Core, and his subsequent switch lacks an obvious cause, other than what opponents say is ambition for higher office.

While plenty of other GOP contenders have stated their opposition to Common Core, Jindal has gone above and beyond. When Jindal speaks at events outside Louisiana, Common Core has almost always been a line of attack. For instance, last February Jindal railed against “the elite in D.C.” while visiting D.C. himself, saying they “think they know better than we do” and that beltway arrogance was what created the Core. At CPAC, he named the total elimination of Common Core from every classroom as a top-three priority for Republicans.

When the state legislature declined to repeal Common Core despite his pleas in 2014, Jindal went on the offensive, issuing a series of executive orders designed to unilaterally abolish the standards. When the school board refused to carry out Jindal’s decrees, arguing they were illegal, Jindal joined a state lawsuit trying to overturn the standards, making him the only Republican candidate to attack Common Core through the courts. For good measure, Jindal has also sued the Obama administration, claiming that various incentives given for Common Core’s adoption infringed on state sovereignty. (RELATED: Jindal Suing Feds Over Common Core)

All of these efforts are a far cry from how Jindal approached Common Core as recently as two years ago, when he, like most Republican leaders, was still comfortable backing the standards. That Jindal changed positions on Common Core is well known, but what is less obvious is just how complete and absolute his flip-flop was. In the past, Jindal didn’t just support Common Core, but also endorsed the specific aspects he now cites as the reasons he flipped on the issue.

Jindal spokesman Mike Reed recently told Politifact that Jindal’s rapid turnabout on Common Core came after he “discovered” the standards were actually a “centralized federal effort” rather than a voluntary state one. He’s also bashed the Core for being “one-size-fits-all” and for promoting “fuzzy math” that emphasizes understanding mathematical processes in addition to getting correct answers.

But the aspects of Common Core Jindal credits with changing his mind have always been a clear part of it, and frequently carried his direct endorsement. For example, Jindal is a signatory of the Common Core Standards Memorandum of Agreement, a document that states signed prior to the development of Common Core laying out how the standards were to be created and what their goals were. This memorandum describes Common Core as a state-led venture, but one where the federal government could play a role by providing funding for the development of standardized tests, incentivizing adoption via Race to the Top (RTTT) stimulus funds, or “providing states greater flexibility in the use of existing federal funds.”

The federal intervention suggested in this original memorandum track very closely with role the Department of Education has actually played in Common Core. Whether government involvement in Common Core is a good idea or not, Jindal can’t credibly claim it was a surprise to him, so his claim that the process was “hijacked” rings hollow.

Jindal’s explicit acceptance of a limited federal role for Common Core was not a one-off event. After signing the memorandum, Jindal had Louisiana eagerly pursue Race to the Top funding, not just once, or twice, but three different times, as the state applied for every round of RTTT until the program’s completion. While states could improve their odds of receiving RTTT money by adopting Common Core, Jindal never complained that his state was being bribed or coerced

It’s doubtful that Jindal was simply ignorant of RTTT’s specifics. The governor’s administration was paying close enough attention to the program that it didn’t apply for RTTT’s spin-off competition concerned with early childhood education, on the grounds that the funding would create unsustainable new obligations for the state.

When asked about Jindal’s aggressive pursuit of RTTT in the past, spokesman Mike Reed said Jindal had essentially fallen into an Obama administration trap, despite the fact that RTTT funds were not a surprise.

“Race to the Top grants were used to lure states into the Common Core scheme,” Reed said in a statement given to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “What started out as voluntary has turned into a scheme by the federal government to trap states in Common Core and push a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Once the federal government trapped states in Common Core, they threatened them against leaving using economic incentive and duress through the grant and waiver program.”

If Common Core was simply a federal trap, it was a trap Jindal remained in for a long time. As late as the fall of 2013, Jindal continued to vigorously defend Common Core principles he later repudiated, such as the sharing of standards between states. In September 2013, Jindal argued that teachers and lawmakers had “fought too hard for too many years” to dial back higher standards in the face of growing criticism. In the same speech, he suggested Louisiana’s prior school standards were inferior, and lauded the fact that Common Core would make Louisiana schools more comparable to those in other states.

“The reality is that that commitment is so important to make sure that our kids are getting a great education. And we can compare that to what kids are learning in other states and other countries,” Jindal said, in a far cry from his current complaints about “one-size-fits-all” standards.

Chas Roemer, the Republican head of Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), said that Jindal was invested in Common Core from the beginning and actively took the lead in pushing it, rather than being misled about the Core’s nature.

“The governor agreed to that,” Roemer told The Daily Caller News Foundaiton. “I would argue at certain times he was the spokesman for that idea.”

Jindal’s appointments reflected a pro-Common Core attitude as well. His appointments to BESE up through 2013 were Core backers, and in 2012, he convinced BESE to select John White as the state schools superintendent. White, who isn’t from Louisiana, was Jindal’s handpicked man for the job, and he remains a very strong Common Core supporter, which has turned him into Jindal’s enemy.

Jindal’s sudden emergence as a leading national critic of Common Core, then, is totally at odds with his actions and statements barely a year beforehand. Besides flatly contradicting his past positions, Jindal has made arguments against Common Core that simply don’t correspond with reality.

In his lawsuit against the Obama administration, Jindal claimed the federal government corrupted Common Core by “hijacking” the state initiative and using it to “nationalize curriculum.” It’s not clear at all, though, what sort of nationalized curriculum Jindal is talking about. Common Core does not prescribe the use of any particular textbooks or lesson plans, and the federal government hasn’t attempted to mandate certain curricula either. Louisiana has always had full power to set its own school curricula, something of which Jindal is almost certainly aware.

Ironically, Jindal’s flip-flop comes at a time where federal encouragement of Common Core is actually decreasing rather than increasing. Race to the Top is winding down, giving less financial incentive for states to use Common Core. The federal government has tied Common Core to the granting of waivers from No Child Left Behind regulations, but states have been able to earn that waiver even without having Common Core, meaning it is hardly a powerful form of coercion.

While federal backing of Common Core is winding down, what hasn’t been winding down is 2016 election fever, which offers Jindal what is likely his greatest chance to vault from Baton Rouge to the White House.

Roemer says he saw warning signs of Jindal’s impending switch move in near lockstep with rising presidential speculation.

“I’ve been around politics my whole life. My father was governor of Louisiana in the 80s,” Roemer said. “It wasn’t hard to put together … At some point, it just appeared to me he was playing a political game for political reasons.”

Roemer, once a close ally of Jindal’s on issues like school vouchers, has become one of the governor’s major foes, because he has refused to follow along with Jindal’s flip-flop. Roemer accused Jindal of letting his national ambitions consume him, traveling around the country to attack Obama’s alleged overreach while becoming detached from the day-to-day details of education policy in the state. Roemer said Jindal’s involvement in education policy has been reduced to making “random” speeches while rarely interacting with state policymakers.

“I probably haven’t spoken to him in a two-year period,” Roemer said.

Roemer also compared Jindal’s detachment to the U.S. president never meeting with his top foreign policy personnel, describing it as a “reckless” approach.

“If you were a parent in this state, to have the governor absent on this issue, other than political statements, was very disturbing,” he added.

When asked by TheDCNF to comment, Jindal spokesman Reed offered no counterargument to Roemer’s claim Jindal has become detached, saying that Roemer was “angry” because he “staked a good portion of his tenure … selling Common Core as a magical elixir that must be force fed to our families.”

Roemer said Jindal’s focus on national politics likely contributed to him making grand gestures like suing the Obama administration or trying to destroy the Core via executive order, an attempt that was quickly shot down in state court. These efforts, Roemer said, wasted money and created “chaos” in the state school system without helping anybody.

“We have been working to implement the new standards in our state for 4-5 years,” said Roemer. “We’ve been preparing teachers and students for the new standards for a long time. And he wants to pull the rug out from people.”

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