The last time Dropout Nation took a look at the battle between Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other state officials over his effort to halt the implementation of Common Core, the governor was engaging in the politics of personal destruction, trying to destroy the reputation of Supt. John White, who is pushing ahead with putting the reading and math standards in place. Since then, as expected, the fracas between Jindal and Common Core supporters has moved into the courtroom.
Last week, the state board of education voted to join the suit filed earlier last month against Jindal’s executive order halting Common Core implementation by a cadre of seven families and charter school teachers (with the help of the Choice Foundation and Black Alliance for Educational Options). Days later, Jindal counter-sued the board, asking a state court judge to invalidate the memorandum of understanding it struck with the PARCC consortium to use its Common Core-aligned tests.
Meanwhile outside the courtroom, Jindal’s hopes that his decision to oppose Common Core (after first backing it) would win allies in the Bayou State fell apart this week when U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican nominee to succeed the governor declared his backing for the standards. As with Republicans in the state legislature who opposed Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation, Vitter’s endorsement of the standards further isolates the governor, proving once again that his strategy against implementation is a failure.
Yet Jindal continues to oppose Common Core unabated,, The amended motion submitted by the governor to halt the roll-out of Common Core-aligned tests embraces nearly every faulty argument offered up by opponents of the standards at the national level — and embraces their conspiracy-theorizing to boot. Jindal’s argument for canceling the state’s memorandum with PARCC doesn’t stand even basic legal scrutiny. More importantly for reformers across the country, Jindal’s antics in opposing Common Core implementation is weakening much-needed efforts to revamp state education governance.
The amended brief alone is less a work of legal argumentation than a recitation of every anti-Common Core argument that can be cribbed from the texts of the Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project. But since Dropout Nation has Ginzu-knifed these fairy tales ad nauseam, I won’t spend more time on it.
The heart of Jindal’s complaint is that the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s memorandum with PARCC should be cancelled because it violates the state constitution. How? Because PARCC’s governing board (of which Louisiana is a member) is charged with overseeing the development and roll-out of the assessments, and that a super-majority of board members decide on various issues related to the effort, Jindal argues that the state board is essentially handing off its responsibilities to a “private non-Louisiana entity” and thus, illegally “binding” the state’s citizens to education policy that the state won’t decide (and, as far as Jindal is concerned, will ultimately be decided by the federal government, which supposedly “compelled” the state to strike the memorandum with PARCC as a condition of competiting for Race to the Top funding).
Jindal’s argument would be convincing if not for some inconvenient facts. For one, as Dropout Nation noted last year, PARCC doesn’t set the test proficiency cut scores that are key to ensuring that standards are reinforced; this is a job that is done by the state board and the superintendent. There’s also the fact that Louisiana can still require PARCC to make adjustments to the tests, including add questions that may result from amendments to Common Core’s reading and math standards; this is going to be done for Massachusetts, which amended Common Core as part of adopting the standards four years ago.
This means that the state board still controls the testing and assessment aspect of education policymaking — and that the PARCC is doing is essentially no different than what every testing company does on behalf of the states for which they work. [The consequences of this reality, by the way, is why your editor expressed skepticism to the transparency-as-accountability approach advocated by many Common Core supporters as a replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions.]
A bigger problem with Jindal’s argument is that the state’s memorandum with PARCC is perfectly legal based on the wording of the state’s own Competency-Based Education Program law, which was amended two years ago (at the governor’s own behest, by the way) to charge the state board of education with implementing tests based on Common Core, the only set of”nationally recognized content standards” available in any form. As Jindal’s attorneys admit, the law gives the state board of education plenty of leeway in selecting any testing regime or vendor it so chooses. Not only can the state board choose to work with PARCC, Jindal isn’t allowed to use his role as the state’s chief budget administrator to interfere with any of its assessment decisions.
Jindal’s brief, in short, is merely political posturing in legal type. It will likely be tossed out of court — and the governor (along with his attorneys) already anticipate that. But for Jindal, the legal maneuvering, like his decision to oppose Common Core after first supporting it, isn’t based on any first principles legal or ideological. It is less about winning a legal victory than about convincing movement conservatives opposed to Common Core — especially those who wrongly believe that education is akin to indoctrination — that he is truly committed to opposing them After all, they know Jindal is engaged in flip-flopping on an epic scale just so he has a chance to win the Republican presidential nomination.
At the same time, the legal wrangling also gives Jindal the chance to further his scorched earth effort to ruin the reputation of Supt. White and muddy the future political aspirations of state board chair (and political scion) Chas Roemer for having the temerity to stand up against him on behalf of Louisiana’s children. By the time this battle is over, Jindal will have ruined his once-stellar reputation on systemic reform as well as limited his possibilities for higher political office. But he may not mind those losses so long as he also damages his foes.
But for reformers, the tactics Jindal is taking to halt Common Core implementation is a problem — and not just because he may actually succeed. It is also because his antics are giving traditionalists and others ammunition for opposing any overhaul of state education governance that involves placing decision-making solely in the hands of governors.
One of the reasons why systemic reform can be arduous to achieve is because of the byzantine structure of the districts, ed schools, and other clusters that make up public education within states. Most of the time, the governors who are the ones best-positioned to advance systemic reform have the least amount of power over it. Only 15 states allow for governors to appoint chief state school officers on their own or with consultation from state boards of education, while only 35 governors can appoint all or the majority of members on state boards of education. This means that in many cases, the governors must either hope for state boards to appoint reform-minded superintendents or can convince the public to care enough about education to elect the right people to oversee public education.
As a result, governors who who don’t have a governance structure that places education under their control will struggle to make things happen unless they either have the political capital (and leadership ability) to make reforms reality, or are in states where the conditions for overhauling public education are already in place. More importantly, byzantine education governance ends up becoming captured by the very politics the 20th century Progressive Era reformers who crafted these structures were trying to avoid. Competing bureaucracies end up in turf battles to justify their existence even when, as in the case of teacher licensing agencies, they shouldn’t exist independent of state education agencies in the first place. As seen in Indiana (where Supt. Glenda Ritz is battling with reformers who control the state board of education), policymaking can end up devolving into senseless sparring matches. And because of such diffusion of authority, no one can be held responsible for policies and practices that continue an education crisis that damages far too many kids.
Reformers have long ago recognized that moving away from byzantine education governance to structures under which the governor is solely in charge of policymaking would both help reform-minded chief executives advance their efforts and lead to coherent, unified decision-making. Most importantly, gubernatorial control means one person can be congratulated for smart decisions and held responsible for bad ones. Some good steps towards that have begun to happen. Last year, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead succeeding in essentially taking over control of the state’s education bureaucracy, while once-and-future Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (a subject of a Dropout Nation profile three years ago) is essentially the state’s chief school officer. Last week, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the outfit run by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, editorialized in favor of ending Arizona’s election of superintendents and making the top education post a gubernatorial appointment.
But citizens and policymakers are only willing to move to gubernatorial control if they can trust that the chief executive in office will behave properly. This means a governor can’t go around using his political office to wage vendettas against those who oppose his efforts; cannot engage in policymaking that is geared solely toward advancing aspirations for higher office; and cannot embrace Hofstadter-like paranoia when being a leader calls for cool, sensible, thoughtful decision-making. Governors who misbehave both lose the ability to make the case for greater control over education policymaking and hurt the efforts of the movement to advance governance reform in the rest of the nation.
Which is why Jindal’s antics in pushing for the halt of Common Core implementation are so troublesome for governance reform. By using state agencies and even the courts to engage in a witch hunt against White and his allies on the state board, Jindal has made it much more difficult for reformers in the Bayou State to make a compelling case for giving governors greater power over education policymaking. The fact that Jindal issued a legally-questionable executive order to halt Common Core implementation even after the state legislature rebuffed his legislative efforts promotes the old Progressive Era perception that governors will simply act as dictators (and ignore the separation of powers clauses in state constitutions) just to get their way.
It is hard for reformers to argue that governors should be in charge of education decisions when a currently-seated chief executive shows that he won’t respect either law or engage sensibly in the policymaking process. In the case of Jindal, his actions are undercutting his own demands through his opposition to Common Core that he, not the state board or White, should have the final say over state education decisions. In fact, Jindal’s misbehavior has given White more influence on education policymaking, both at the state and national levels (and thus more credit for the efforts undertaken over the past few years), while obscuring the strong and sensible leadership on systemic reform the governor has shown for most of his tenure.
For both traditionalists and others who are concerned with expanding executive branch power, Jindal’s antics are the best argument against any reform of state education governance. This is a shame. Byzantine educational governance does nothing good either for kids, taxpayers, or even governors. But Jindal may have wrecked education governance reform for the next decade. Thanks for nothing, Bobby.