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And now, a Common Core brawl

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) speaks at a news conference about his efforts to remove the state from the Common Core initiative on Wednesday in Baton Rouge, La. (Melinda Deslatte/AP)
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You’d think that the heated debate, overcharged rhetoric and complete nonsense being spouted for and against the Common Core State Standards would be enough for one education reform. But no, now we have a brawl. Yes, in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal — who loved the Core before he hated it — has essentially declared war on other state officials with whom he agreed for years. And now teachers and students are in the crosshairs of a political fight that has everything to do with presidential politics and nothing to do with learning how to read and write.

Jindal (R) on Wednesday said he was pulling Louisiana out of the Core initiative and a multistate consortium designing a new Core-aligned standardized test. His former allies, state Superintendent John White and Chas Roemer,  chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he can’t unilaterally make Core decisions. The state, they said, would continue on the Core path. Jindal said it wouldn’t.

Potato, potahto; let’s call the whole thing off.

Who is right about who has the authority to make these decisions? Who knows?

While the fight is specific to Louisiana and Jindal’s dreams of running for president in 2016, the brawl underscores growing tensions in states around the country surrounding the Common Core.

Just a few years ago the Core initiative — a set of math and English/Language Arts standards and aligned standardized tests — had unusual bipartisan support and had been adopted fully by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Then critics from all sides of the political spectrum began to find problems with the initiative — some with the actual content of the standards, others with the design of the new tests being created, yet others with how the standards were written and by whom, and those who objected on various levels to the amount of federal involvement in the enterprise. The federal role became all-important to far-right wingers who saw the Core as a federal conspiracy to turn students gay, or communist, or a range of other things, but also to more sober-minded people who felt the Obama administration had coerced states into adopting the standards with federal money and No Child Left Behind waivers — all before the Core had been proven to work.

Now, three states have officially withdrawn from the Core, and more than a dozen have or are considering different ways to distance themselves from the standards, while many states have pulled out of the two multistate testing consortia funded by the federal government to design new Core-aligned tests. One of the principal ideas behind the Core was to have common standards and tests so that valid comparisons of student achievement across states could be made. An Education Week analysis found that in the next school year, 19 different accountability tests will be given in various states, a far different reality than Core supporters had hoped.

How did Louisiana get here? As far back as 2008, even before the standards were unveiled, Jindal was a strong supporter of common standards in states across the country, talking frequently about the need for such an effort. In 2010, he led Louisiana’s adoption of the standards. In this 2012 speech, he was still backing the standards, insisting that they would “raise expectations for every child.”

But this year, the Core stopped looking so good to Jindal. Believed to be interested in running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Jindal aligned himself with the far, far right, which turned against the Core.  In April he wrote in this op-ed that the Core, originally state-led, had been ruined by federal intervention, saying that “centralized planning didn’t work in Russia … and it won’t work in education.”

On Wednesday, he announced that he was unilaterally pulling Louisiana out of the Core initiative and would have the state design its own standards and standardized assessment for students. He said that he was pulling Louisiana from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is designing new Core-aligned tests, because it would violate the state’s procurement laws, which require Louisiana to use the lowest cost vendors when it buys a product or service.

Within minutes of his news conference, White and Roemer had a conference call with reporters, saying that Jindal didn’t have the power to pull out of the Core. Roemer repeated something that Education Secretary Arne Duncan had recently said: That Jindal’s change of heart was motivated by his presidential campaign plans.

“I don’t take any great satisfaction in saying this — this is a political maneuver.  His politics are national in scope and focused on a very particular portion of the vote. There is no other way to explain a 180-degree turn from a plan that started in 2004.”

And White said:

“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.”

Duncan, on “CBS This Morning,” said recently that the situation with Jindal “is about politics … not about education” and he continued insisting the Core was a state-led initiative voluntarily adopted by states. Duncan still hasn’t admitted that his department did actually coerce states to adopt the Core by dangling federal money in front of them through Race to the Top, and also by dangling waivers from the most onerous parts of No Child Left Behind. States that did what the department wanted — which included adopting common standards — got the money and the waivers. No, the department didn’t “force” states to do it, but it made it mighty hard for a state not to do what he wanted. What state wanted to be forced to stay in compliance with a law — NCLB — that Duncan himself said was fatally flawed and needs to be rehauled? Duncan could have just given waivers to states with no strings, but that’s not what he did.

But interestingly, Jindal, while insisting that Duncan’s department is foisting its will on states, is making a decision on the Core that goes against the state school board, the state school superintendent that he had pushed to be hired, and state legislators who just a few weeks ago passed legislation that supported the Core and PARCC tests that are supposed to be given in the next school year.

The issue will likely end up in court, although that could take time and the uncertainty leaves educators and students in a haze about what to expect next year. In Oklahoma, where Gov. Mary Fallin, a Core supporter, just yielded to Core opposition and pulled the state out, teachers are frantically remaking lesson plans for the next school year because the state has now reverted to standards being used before the Core was adopted.

Such confusion and political drama was certainly never the intent of the creators and backers of the Core. But this is what happens when a new, untested initiative is pushed on states and implementation is rushed. There were some in the education world warning that the Core was being implemented way too fast in a rush to link the student scores on new Core-aligned standardized tests to teacher evaluations — another untested school reform. Teachers, even those who supported the standards as an improvement on their state’s former standards —  didn’t have enough time to create quality curriculum. There was so much backlash that states began asking the federal government for permission to wait a year or two to link the scores to teacher evaluations.

School reformers didn’t listen to the serious critics when they had the chance. Now they — and more importantly, the country’s public schools — are paying the price for such myopic haste.