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September 16, 2014 standard

These days, Bobby Jindal is grasping at every straw he can to help his all-but-dead campaign for the Republican presidential nomination gain traction. From demanding today at a Heritage Foundation event that House and Senate Republicans ditch the Affordable Care Act and implement an alternate healthcare plan, to floating a quixotic plan to end the nation’s dependence on oil on Monday, to his continuing desperate effort to halt execution of Common Core reading and math standards he once strongly supported, the once-respectable Louisiana governor is doing all he can to win over movement conservatives and moderate Republicans needed to gain the nod.

Yet you won’t find Jindal talking much about addressing the long-term defined-benefit pension and unfunded retired civil servant healthcare costs that are now burdening the balance sheets of every state government. For good reason. Jindal has done almost nothing to address the Bayou State’s massive pension deficits. Two years ago, the Pew Center on the States reported that the Bayou State’s collection of pensions were only 56 percent funded. Because of the state’s fiscal fecklessness — along with the high costs of the deals it made with local governments and public-sector unions — the state was faced with paying down $51 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, along with another $10 billion in unfunded retired civil servant healthcare costs (for which Jindal and his predecessors have put away no money to cover). Moody’s Investors Service determined last year that the state’s pension shortfalls, when accurately determined, were 30 percent greater than revenue. Even with such high-profile spankings, Jindal, along with his colleagues in state government, have still done nothing to address the problem.

To see how badly Jindal has handled the Bayou State’s long-term fiscal woes, just look at the latest comprehensive annual financial report for the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, the defined-benefit pension for teachers and other school employees.

The pension officially reports an underfunding of $$11,.3 billion for 2012-2013. Based on the official numbers, the insolvency is 72 percent higher than the $6.6 billion it reported in 2007-2008, the year Jindal took office. Just on these numbers alone, it is clear that Jindal, along with his colleagues in the state legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, have done little to reverse the pension’s tenuous status as a going concern.

But as with most state pensions, TRSL is understating the level of its insolvency. For one, thanks to the pension’s smoothing efforts (which allow it to recognize gains and losses over a five year period), only a fifth of its losses were recognized and counted against liabilities. More importantly, TRSL assumes an overly inflated rate of investment growth of eight percent. This in spite of its own admission that it has only achieved a five-year return rate of just 4.8 percent on its investments, which, by the way, is lower than the 5.2 percent five-year return rate Wilshire Associates says has been experienced by the financial markets. The pension admits that its assets (on an actuarial basis) decreased by 5.4 percent between 2008 and 2013, even as its benefit payouts increased by 30 percent (from $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion) in that time.

To get to the true level of TRSL’s insolvency, Dropout Nation uses a version of a technique developed by Moody’s Investors Service, which assumes a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of a return. [Moody's bases its rate of return on the performance of a bond index, which can range between four and six percent.] Based on those numbers, TRSL’s true insolvency is likely $15.4 billion, or 36 percent higher than officially reported. If Louisiana state government was forced to make up the shortfall over 17 years, taxpayers would have to contribute an additional $905 million a year, or 92 percent more than the $984 million paid into the pension last year. This, in turn, would have meant that the state would have had to carve out an additional three percent of its $29.7 billion budget just to shore up the pension.

For Louisiana, addressing TRSL’s insolvency is especially critical because more Baby Boomers in the teaching ranks are heading into retirement. Each year, 1,602 Bayou State teachers covered by TRSL have retired every year between 2004 and 2013, according to a Dropout Nation analysis. Each retiree, on average, collects an annual annuity of $24,358. [Four-point-eight percent of them, or 2,899 retired teachers and school leaders, are collecting annual annuities of $54,000 a year or more.] So TRSL can easily expect to pay out at least an additional $39 million a year — and even that is an understatement: The pension paid out $92 million in new annuities last year thanks to the retirement of 3,095 teachers and other school workers.

Certainly Jindal, who only holds one seat on TRSL’s 17-member board through the state department of administration, can’t take all the responsibility for its woeful condition. After all, the Bayou State legislature holds two seats on the pension’s board (as well as exercise ultimate control over its finances through appropriations and budgeting), while State Treasurer John Kennedy also sits on the board. They, along with Supt. John White, who sits on the board (as well as predecessors including former state education boss Paul Pastorek), must join the governor in taking responsibility for its virtual insolvency.

Yet Jindal can’t be let off the hook. As seen in his effort to halt Common Core implementation, as well as with his more-laudable efforts to expand the Bayou State’s school voucher program, Jindal has been more than willing to aggressively take on issues, especially if it also helps his ambitions of higher elected office. The fact that Jindal has done little more than sign into law House Bill 61, which would have put new state’s higher ed employees into a cash-balance pension plan before it was struck down by the state supreme court, shows how little Jindal cares about addressing the very fiscal issues that, along with education, can make the difference between Louisiana emerging as a leading state and it continuing its woeful position as the worst in everything that matters.

Jindal still has a little time left in office to take on pension reform in a meaningful way. One solution must start with increasing the contributions paid by current workers into the pension. Teachers contribute just 25 cents out of every dollar contributed into TRSL in 2013; this is eight cents lower than the contribution level in 2008. Increasing teacher contributions to at least 37 cents of every dollar put into the pension — the level of contribution made by teachers a decade ago — would at least be a good start.

But it won’t be enough because increasing contribution levels alone doesn’t reduce the growth in unfunded liabilities that comes with additional retirements. This will only come if Louisiana takes an even bigger step: Moving existing and new teachers out of TRSL and putting them into a hybrid plan that features a defined-contribution element into which they can save as much as they choose for retirement. Certainly Jindal will have to work hard to rally the two-thirds support in the legislature needed for passing such a plan. But he could work with his likely successor as governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, to make it a reality.

For Louisiana, school districts, and ultimately, taxpayers and children, this move would immediately slow the growth in TRSL’s liabilities. It is also beneficial for younger teachers. Given that half of them are likely to leave the profession within their first five years, moving to a portable hybrid retirement plan would actually allow them to reap the full rewards of their work.

The Bayou State faces a pension crisis nearly as daunting as its educational woes. But if Jindal is serious about leaving office with some kind of a legacy worth having, especially in light of how his counterproductive battle to halt Common Core implementation has ruined him politically, he should tackle it with vigor.

August 28, 2014 standard

Your editor could opine about some of the amazing aspects of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal move yesterday to file a federal suit in his ambition-driven jihad against Common Core reading and math standards. Start with the fact that Jindal, along with other movement conservative Common Core foes such as FreedomWorks and the Pioneer Institute (which harrumphed about the suit in a press release) are demanding the kind of judicial activism they often oppose. In fact, FreedomWorks complained that last week’s ruling by a state court judge against Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation (a clear violation of state law) was such even when it wasn’t so.

There’s also the fact that Jindal’s suit rails against the Obama Administration’s support for states voluntarily implementing Common Core when he championed that very help for the Bayou State’s reform efforts four years ago. Jindal’s flip-flop was laid out in great detail last week by Louisiana Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez in his ruling against Jindal’s executive order attempting to halt the standards, as well as by your editor back in June. It is hard for Jindal to square his proclamation that he is against any federal support for systemic reform against declarations five years ago that Louisiana was in “great position” to win federal Race to the Top funding.

But none of this is surprising. As Dropout Nation has pointed out since June,, the Louisiana governor’s effort to kibosh Common Core implementation, both within his state and now on a national level, is driven less by either ideology and principle than by a desire to bolster support for his likely run for the Republican presidential nomination among movement conservatives. None of this has worked out in Jindal’s favor at the polls. But in filing this latest suit (along with earlier, unsuccessful litigation at the state level), Jindal believes he can still get a heads-up against other Republican aspirants by saying that he was the only one who took legal action against Common Core implementation. But what do Common Core foes get out of this? For them, Jindal’s 29 pages of fury and fantasy allows them to further their incredible narrative of implementation as some sort of federal coercion.

But in the process, both Jindal and his fellow-travelers against Common Core have ensured themselves of embarrassment on a national stage in the one place they can’t win the day: Courts of law where facts count.

But let’s get to the gist of Jindal’s suit. In it, Jindal and his allies are asking a federal district court judge to invalidate the rules governing Race to the Top because the entire effort supposedly violates federal law — including the General Education Provisions Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the law authorizing the creation of the Department of Education itself. How? Because in Jindal’s mind, Race to the Top has put the Obama Administration in the position of controlling Louisiana’s curricula and that of other states. How? By awarding funding to those states who voluntarily implemented Common Core along with other reforms such as eliminating caps on charter school growth.

That Race to the Top also included a round that funded the work of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia developing Common Core-aligned tests makes the federal coercion even stronger than one would realize. How? According to Jindal’s attorneys, the fact that PARCC and Smarter Balanced detail their work on developing the tests means that it is explicitly developing curricular materials. Since the Obama Administration granted Race to the Top money for that purpose, this means that it is directly controlling curricula in violation of federal law.

As mentioned, Jindal’s argument isn’t a new one. Pioneer has argued that line since 2012, when it recruited former Bush Administration lawyers Kent Talbert and Robert Eitel (along with Stanford University’s resident anti-Common Core activist, Bill Evers) to pull out a report questioning the legality of federal support for Common Core implementation. More importantly, Jindal’s narrative is based on that of Pioneer and its fellow Common Core foes, most-notably Neal McCluskey of the libertarian Cato Institute, all of whom view any federal support for the standards as coercion.

Yet Jindal (along with his allies) leaves out a few inconvenient facts — and not just that he led Louisiana’s successful effort to gain $17.5 million in Race to the Top (including Common Core implementation) before he decided he was against it.

There’s the fact that Race to the Top is a voluntary effort under which states can win federal funding so long as they implement a set of reforms they have chosen on their own. The fact that a mere 18 states ended up receiving Race to the Top funding (out of 50) since 2010 and that most of those states only garnered funding for teacher evaluation, school data system, and charter school expansion efforts (and not simply for Common Core implementation) makes lie of Jindal’s coercion argument (and that of his fellow Common Core allies). Because no aspect of Race to the Top involved the Obama Administration actually blessing any curricula — and since states could refuse to either implement Common Core or develop their own form of college and career-ready standards as part of their grant proposal — Jindal can’t prove that the administration’s actions violate GEPA or any federal statute. [That the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which governs Race to the Top, likely supersedes any other education laws on the books, is also a consideration that Jindal has ignored.]

If anything, the federal government has proven far too willing to accommodate states that haven’t fully met their promises. New York, for example, hasn’t returned any of its $696 million in Race to the Top funding even though it still hasn’t fully implemented the teacher evaluation system at the heart of its successful grant request. Only Hawaii was considered at high risk of losing its $75 million grant — and even the Aloha State has managed to keep its funding in spite of struggles on implementing its promised teacher evaluation system. Put simply, the Obama Administration could easily prove in court that it hasn’t engaged in any coercion, much less any control over state policymaking.

Then there’s the fact that Jindal fails to admit that states were on the path to developing Common Core’s long before the Obama Administration came into the picture. Starting in 2004, Achieve Inc., through its American Diploma Project, worked with 35 states (including Louisiana) to help them develop curricula requirements for obtaining high school diplomas. By 2008, a year before the formal development of Common Core, Achieve released Benchmarking for Success, a report which laid out much of the framework for how Common Core’s standards would be crafted as well as offered guidance to states in revamping standards on their own.

A year later, the work on developing common standards came to fruition when governors and chief state school officers through their two policymaking groups — the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers — began developing what are now Common Core reading and math standards. The two groups gleaned the lessons from Achieve’s efforts, along with the lessons gleaned from earlier standards development efforts by reform-minded governors and standards-and-accountability activists. Especially given Jindal’s role in Louisiana’s successful move to approve Common Core (including passage of his school reform package in 2012 that makes implementation of the standards one of its centerpieces), Jindal can’t prove coercion.

Meanwhile the argument that the Obama Administration is coercing states into implementing Common Core is laughable. In fact, they actually requested federal support for the effort. More importantly, federal support for reforms at the state level is nothing new or illegal. From the passage of the Morrill Land Grant in 1863 to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, administrations Republican and Democrat have encouraged systemic reforms such as providing comprehensive college-preparatory curricula.

The Reagan Administration’s release of A Nation at Risk in 1983 led to the launch of some 25o commissions and panels working on developing curricula standards and other matters. A decade later, the Clinton Administration’s passage of Goals 2000 as well as the reauthorization of the Improving America’s Schools Act, the immediate predecessor of the No Child Left Behind Act, furthered reforms already beginning in states. Then came No Child in 2001, which gave reform-minded governors the tools they needed to advance reforms and overcome opposition from traditionalists within their states. No Child also supported what would be the coming together of states on developing common curricula.

This federal support for state-level reforms extends to the development of standardized testing regimes such as those provided by PARCC and Smarter Balanced. It was the passage of the National Defense Education Act that led to the first wave of standardized testing regimes. Four decades later, the Improving America’s Schools Act and then No Child, would support state level testing efforts. For Jindal and Common Core foes to prove that the Obama Administration acted illegally, they would have to argue against what can only be called settled law.

Simply put, Jindal has no case. Even worse for Common Core foes, the Obama Administration, along with supporters of the standards, could make mincemeat of their entire argument. The facts fail to support the narrative conjured up out of thin air by Common Core foes. Luckily for most of Jindal’s fellow-travelers against the standards, they don’t work in institutions of higher education; as is, particularly for once-sensible reformers, their fanciful federal coercion narrative, along with their willingness to associate with demagogues such as once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch, radio talk show host Glenn Beck, and pundit Michelle Malkin, hasn’t covered themselves in any glory.

[Let's also note that the case can be made that the federal government hasn't done enough to hold states accountable for meeting their promises under Race to the Top. This need for accountability, by the way, would also make it hard for Oklahoma to sue the Obama Administration over its move today to end its No Child waiver; the state voluntarily implemented Common Core a year before applying for a waiver, and had promised to have college-and-career ready standards of some kind in place in exchange for being allowed to ignore federal law. Your editor will elaborate more on that tomorrow.]

If anything, Jindal’s lawsuit will end up backfiring on Common Core foes by allowing supporters of the standards to jujitsu their fanciful narrative on the national legal stage.

Meanwhile Jindal’s lawsuit also gives Common Core supporters a new opportunity to make some key points. The first? That the Obama Administration’s support for Common Core is no different than what earlier presidents — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — have done for other state-level reform efforts: Provide much-needed (and as Ilya Somin of the Cato Institute would likely note, much-desired) cover for reform-minded governors and school leaders to undertake critical efforts opposed by traditionalists entrenched in American public education’s super-clusters of failure.

The second: That Common Core implementation is a key step in addressing the reality that far too many kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, are not getting the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society. Given that the federal government is charged under the U.S. Constitution and by laws such as No Child with defending the civil rights of black, Latino, Asian, and poor white children, the case can be made that not enough is being done by the Obama Administration to support implementation.

And finally, by so fervently opposing Common Core implementation, especially with conspiracy-theorizing that is intellectually senseless, the motley crew of movement conservatives, hardcore progressive traditionalists, and even once-sensible reformers have essentially revealed themselves to be far more concerned with comforting their ideologies (and in the case of traditionalists and some school choice activists, their financial interests) than with building brighter futures for kids. Especially in light of the data on how few of our most-vulnerable kids are being provided college-preparatory learning from the moment they enter school, opposing Common Core implementation is morally indefensible. Common Core foes cannot claim to be concerned about the futures of children when the consequences of their opposition harm them the most.

By the time Jindal’s lawsuit gets tossed out of court, the governor will have destroyed what’s left of his future political prospects as well as ruined what was once a respectable legacy on the school reform front. But for Common Core foes, the damage may be even worse than that. The good news for supporters of the standards is that once again their opponents are their own worse enemy.


August 21, 2014 standard

Opponents of Common Core reading and math standards have spent the past couple of days crowing about survey results from polls conducted by Education Next and Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Organization. But your editor isn’t all that concerned about those results. For one, as great leaders such as Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan have always known, doing the right thing is never popular. This is especially true with implementing Common Core, which disturbs many of those opposed to the standards because they don’t believe that all children (especially those from poor and minority households) deserve high-quality education. More importantly, the success of the standards will ultimately be seen in their execution in classrooms and throughout American public education. And finally, given that opinion polls are only as good as the questions are asked (as well as how they are asked), who really knows whether either Education Next or PDK/Gallup’s results fully reflect public sentiment.

But your editor does care about data on how many of our children are getting the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula they need for success in adulthood. Which is why yesterday’s report from ACT on the readiness of high school graduates for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education is disturbing. Once again, we have been reminded that far too few of our children are getting the knowledge they need for lifelong success. And that should be far more disturbing to Common Core foes than their ideological, political, and personal opposition to the standards.

The fact that just 11 percent of black high school grads taking the ACT scored at college-ready levels — the lowest percentage for every racial subgroup taking the exam — in three or more categories is absolutely shocking. The numbers are even worse when you break down each category. Black children trailed in every category, with just 17 percent of them scoring at college-ready levels on the English portion of the exam, a mere 14 percent scoring at such levels on the math exam, and a rock-bottom 10 percent on the science component of ACT’s annual test.

This means that far too many black high school graduates didn’t get the college-preparatory learning they needed to be ready for either ACT or for success in college. Which, in turn, means that they will likely struggle mightily in higher education, ending up in remedial education courses that will lead them out of the door of colleges and into poverty.

But the news isn’t any better for the rest of our children. Just 18 percent of American Indian high school grads scored at college-ready levels in three or more categories on ACT; only 17 percent of Native students performed at college ready levels in science while a mere 20 percent scored at such levels in math. Only 23 percent — or one in four — Latino high school grads were able to score at college-ready levels; just 21 percent of them performed at college-ready levels in science while only 29 percent demonstrated their college-readiness in mathematics.

As for white high school grads? The news isn’t all that good. Sure, 49 percent of them scored at college-ready levels in three or more subjects. But that means that one out of every two of them didn’t get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they needed. Just 52 percent of white high school grads scored at college-preparatory levels in math, while only 46 percent scored at such levels in science. And only 54 percent of white high school grads scored at college-ready levels in the reading portion of the ACT exam. Given that math and science mastery are the key gateways into the high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs in this increasingly knowledge-based economy, this means many white children — along with black, Native, and Latino kids — are being locked out of middle-class futures. And that doesn’t bode well for either the nation or the communities in which they live and will likely stay.

It isn’t as if many of these high school graduates were just a question or two away from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmark. One out of every two high school grads missed the mark in math and science by three or more points; two out of every five missed the mark in reading by that much. Put in perspective, only one out of every 7 high school grads taking ACT missed the college-readiness mark by less than two points in reading and science, while one in 10 missed the goal by that much in math.

Meanwhile ACT’s trend data on college readiness should also give everyone pause. Between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of high school grads who demonstrated higher ed readiness in three or more categories tested barely budged for all groups. Black and Latino high school grads showed only sluggish growth, with percentages increasing respectively, by one percent and two percent between 2010 and 2014. The percentage of white high schoolers demonstrating college-readiness increased by a mere one percent in that same period. Even for Asian high schoolers, who have the highest performance levels on ACT, the percentage demonstrating college-readiness barely budget at 57 percent.

What about states that aren’t implementing or halted use of Common Core? In North Carolina, which halted implementation last month, just 30 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while a mere 33 percent scored at such levels on the math portion of the exam, and only 23 percent of Tar Heel State graduates scored at college-ready levels on the science portion; all high school grads in the state take ACT. In Missouri (where 76 percent of students take ACT), one out of every two high school grads scored at college-ready levels on ACT’s reading component, while only 45 percent and 42 percent of grads scored at college-ready levels on the math and science portions of the exam. [Given what we know about how few students in the Show Me State are being provided college-preparatory learning, the results aren't shocking.] And in South Carolina, which rolled back Common Core in June, (and where 58 percent of grads took ACT), only 41 percent of high school graduates scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of the test, while just 39 percent and 33 percent of grads scored at such levels on the math and science components.

Meanwhile in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt Common Core implementation has been defeated, the need for the standards can be easily seen in the scores for high school grads in that state. Just 37 percent of Bayou State grads scored at college-ready levels on the reading portion of ACT, while only 31 percent and 29 percent of grads reached such levels on the math and science portions. The need for comprehensive college-preparatory curricula standards is crystal clear for both the states that have halted Common Core implementation and those where politicians are fighting to roll them back.

Let’s be clear: As shocking as the ACT results are, they aren’t surprising. Just 37 percent of high school grads scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a one percent decline from levels in 2009. Just 16 percent of black high school graduates, along with 24 percent of Latino schoolmates, and 26 percent of Native peers scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, barely budging from levels four years earlier; white and Asian high school grads did little better, with 47 percent of each group scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels, little changed (for white kids) and a two percentage point decline (for Asians) in that time.

Young men of all backgrounds, in particular, are struggling mightily in college-and-career readiness. Only 33 percent of young men graduating high school in 2013 scored at Proficient and Advanced levels in reading, unchanged from levels in 2009. As a result, young men graduating high school trail their female peers by nine percentage points in 2013; while the gap shrunk by two percentage points between 2009 and 2013, that’s only because of a decline in the percentage of young women high school grads scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels. The problems are particularly acute for young black men. Just 13 percent of young black men graduating high schoool read at Proficient and Advanced levels, trailing their female schoolmates by five percentage points. But the gaps for young white men are even larger; the percentage of them scoring at Proficient and Advanced levels was 11 percentage points lower than that for their female peers.

The reforms spurred by the No Child Left Behind in 2001 have reduced the percentage of high school grads who are functionally illiterate. But the demands of the knowledge-based economy means that the greater focus must be on providing kids with college-preparatory curricula (along with high-quality teaching) they need to be successful in a world in which what they do with their minds is more-important than what they do with their hands. Yet until the implementation of Common Core, few kids were being provided this learning.

Just 13 percent of American high school students of all socioeconomic backgrounds were taking comprehensive college-preparatory courses while the rest were taking less-rigorous curricula, according to NAEP’s 2009 high school transcript study. A quarter of all grads taking NAEP were subjected to curriculum that didn’t even include algebra or any kind of rigor. The importance of comprehensive college-preparatory curricula can be seen in this year’s ACT results: One out of every two high school grads who took what ACT defines as a core curriculum (including three years of math and science), scored at college-readiness levels on the reading and math portions of the exam.

This is a problem that begins long before kids reach high school. As Dropout Nation noted last year, just one out of every five eighth-graders in seven states that mandate all kids take Algebra 1 actually did so. Even worse, most students haven’t been getting the literacy and math curricula and instruction they need to take on college-preparatory work once they enter high school. Thanks in part to the gatekeeping of gifted-and-talented programs and the overlabeling of kids, especially young black men as special ed cases — all of which are legacies of the racialist policies of American public education’s past — many kids are kept from getting the learning they need and deserve. This is especially true for kids from poor and minority backgrounds As the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation determined in a 2007 study,  3.4 million children from low-income households were among the top-performers in their schools, yet were unlikely to get the college-prep curricula necessary to continue their success into high school and beyond.

What is clear from the ACT results, as well as from other data, is this simple reality: We cannot continue providing our children with substandard curricula and standards unfit for them to build better lives in adulthood. Patricia Levesque is correct when she argued yesterday that we cannot continue to perpetuate the failures of American public education on another generation. This is why implementing Common Core, along with other reforms, is critical to helping all kids succeed. And why those opposed to implementing the standards should hold their heads low in shame for their immoral denial of high-quality education for children better-deserving than the worst they get.

Featured photo courtesy of Chloe Crane Leroux.


August 19, 2014 standard

The good news for reformers, and ultimately, for the children of Louisiana, is that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards has been kiboshed by a state court judge. But reformers, especially Common Core supporters, must keep in mind that there is hard work ahead to make the promise of the standards a reality for all kids, especially those in the Bayou State long stuck with the worst American public education offers.

Earlier this evening, Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez handed down a preliminary injunction in Navis Hill v. Jindal, preventing the governor from enforcing the executive order issued in June ending Common Core implementation. Writing that Jindal provided no evidence for justifying his move, Hernandez also determined that the governor offered no basis for his claim that Supt. John White and other state education officials illegally contracted with the PARCC consortium to implement tests aligned with the test. Hernandez then noted that Jindal’s move was causing havoc within the Bayou State’s districts, charter schools, and private schools because of the consequences for kids, families, and teachers (the last of which gain bonuses based on performance improvements measured by the exams).

Most importantly, Hernandez noted that Jindal didn’t have any constitutional authority to even interfere with Common Core implementation because the state legislature (at Jindal’s behest) has authorized the state education department to proceed. In the process, Hernandez also laid out Jindal’s flip-flopping on Common Core, showing how he supported implementing the standards before he decided to oppose them. Wrote Hernandez: “The Louisiana Constitution is clear… [the state legislature and education department] supervise and control the public elementary and secondary schools in the state.”

For Jindal, who has already declared that he would appeal Hernandez’s ruling, this is the latest loss he has suffered in his anti-Common Core tirade. Earlier this year, state legislators refused to go along with his effort to halt implementation of the standards, only offering a compromise measure that would allow the Bayou State to amend aspects of the standards it desired. [Jindal rejected that measure.] Last week, his amended motion in Navis Hill asking for the court to cancel the state’s memorandum with PARCC was tossed out of court. Then on Monday, a suit filed against White and the state board of education by a group of legislators allied with Jindal on opposing the standards was also thrown out of court.

In the process, Jindal has destroyed what was until recently a strong legacy on advancing systemic reform during his seven years in office. He also ended up losing allies among reformers and school choice activists, including the Black Alliance for Educational Options (who helped back the Navis Hill suit). By engaging in his political jihad — which has included attempting to destroy the career and reputation of White and state board president Chas Roemer — Jindal has exposed for national display his longstanding penchant of being petty and vindictive in dealing with opponents and otherwise allies. And reformers at the national level are angry with Jindal because his antics have wounded efforts to overhaul how states govern public education (especially in Arizona and Indiana), weakening arguments for placing control of policymaking into gubernatorial hands.

Meanwhile Jindal hasn’t even succeeded in his goal of boosting his likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination: The Bayou State governor is attracting support from only two percent of Republicans and one percent of independents in this month’s McClatchy-Marist University Poll, trailing 10 other likely candidates, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (both Common Core supporters) and Common Core foes such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his colleague in Wisconsin, Scott Walker (who is facing a tough re-election bid).

As your editor noted last month, Jindal’s gambit hasn’t won over movement conservatives otherwise uninterested in education because they know that Jindal has flip-flopped his position on Common Core, and thus, see him as just another cheap-suit politician, Meanwhile Jindal has gained no ground with moderate Republicans and independents, who just don’t see him as a compelling representative of the party. And the antics of late are concerning to those movement conservatives who are already complaining about what they consider to be acts of executive overreach by President Barack Obama; Jindal’s behavior rightfully makes him unsuited for the presidency in their minds.

All in all, Jindal’s future political prospects are likely done. This isn’t to say that Jindal won’t continue his vindictive ways. School choice activists should expect the governor to do nothing on their behalf next year when it comes to the budget for the state’s voucher program. This means they must continue building the already-strong support for expanding choice and continuing the program, including reaching out to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican nominee and Jindal’s probable successor in the governor’s office.

Jindal’s defeat is good news for Bayou State children — and for those working hard to address its longstanding failure to provide all kids with high-quality education. The challenges are definitely tremendous: Thirty-two percent of Bayou State eighth-graders read Below Basic, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 10 percentage points greater than the national average; only 24 percent of eighth-graders in the state read at Proficient and Advanced levels (read: have been successfully prepared for success in higher education and career), trailing the national average by 12 percentage points. The average Bayou State eighth-grader is a grade level behind his peer nationwide.

But implementing Common Core successfully will be no easy task. There’s Jindal, who will stand in the way of successful implementation (if he cannot stop the effort altogether) by using his budgetary authority. Reformers and Common Core supporters will have to hold his feet to the fire, using every tactic available to keep the dollars flowing and put Jindal into the corner where he belongs.

Beyond Jindal, Common Core supporters must work closely with districts, charter schools, and teachers to ensure that implementation is a success. This starts with ensuring that curricula (including materials used in classrooms) are aligned with the standards. As seen in other states, this can be tricky, especially if teachers use inappropriate or even explicitly political texts in ways that can lead to Common Core foes claiming that the standards are a tool for political indoctrination. Presenting successful approaches used by high-quality teachers in other states in using original texts in their work is key. The move this week by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch, which reviews curricula and other materials, will also help. [That it took so long for Common Core supporters to address this issue is shameful, by the way, and is one reason why opponents have garnered support.]

Another key move lies with setting high test proficiency cut scores on the PARCC tests. This is important for two reasons. The first? Setting high expectations is key to reaping the promise of implementing Common Core and, ultimately, helping our children get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they deserve. Secondly, high cut scores are necessary because families, communities, and policymakers must know the truth about how well school operators and those who work within them are providing our Bayou State kids with high-quality education. Working with White on communicating these expectations and realities to the public — especially to suburban districts which have long-perpetuated the myth that they are providing high-quality education to the kids they serve — is crucial.

Common Core supporters and reformers have scored an important victory against halting Common Core implementation, both in Louisiana and in the nation as a whole. In the process, they have all but mortally wounded a shameless, immoral politician and helped all children get opportunities for high-quality education. Now it is time to get to the hard work of implementation so the promise for kids becomes reality.

Featured photo courtesy of Getty Images.

August 8, 2014 standard

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.

Reform of state education governance would empower more state chief executives such as former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to use more than their bully pulpits to transform education. But Jindal’s antics in opposing Common Core may make such overhauls impossible to undertake.

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.



July 24, 2014 standard

Bobby Jindal’s Politics of Personal Destruction: One of the less-settling themes of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure has been his penchant for being petty in dealing with his opponents and even otherwise allies. As I mentioned in yesterday’s piece on Jindal’s faltering anti-Common Core strategy for winning the Republican presidential nod, the Bayou State governor took aim at his lieutenant governor last year for his failure to adhere to his party line by cutting the $2 million budget used for promoting tourism. At the same time, Jindal also cut the budget of the state treasurer, John Kennedy, for opposing the governor’s use of one-shot revenues to balance the budget. A year before, Jindal successfully demanded his ally in the state legislature, House Speaker Charles Kleckley, to demote one member of the Republican caucus, Harold Ritchie, over his vote against one of Jindal’s proposed tax breaks.

So it isn’t shocking that Jindal is likely taking aim at Supt. John White over his efforts against the governor’s push to halt Common Core implementation. White sounded the alarm yesterday in a letter to the state board of education proclaiming that Jindal’s apparatchiks (including state board member and Jindal ally Jane Smith, along with Kristy Nichols, who runs Jindal’s Department of Administration) are insinuating that he and his staffers have been violating state ethics laws through the work on implementing the standards as well as in contributions made to the state by Teach For America. White also noted that one of his allies, state board chairman (and political scion) Chas Roemer, has also been hearing that Jindal’s apparatchiks are looking to find evidence of ethics violations.

Given Jindal’s endgame of kiboshing Common Core implementation — and White’s effort to keep it going — it is clear that the governor will do anything he can to force the superintendent out of office. If it means ruining White’s reputation, so be it. Put simply, Jindal is engaging in the same kind of politics of personal destruction that White’s colleague in Indiana, Glenda Ritz successfully deployed (with help from Associated Press write Tom LoBianco) against her predecessor, former Florida Supt. Tony Bennett, who is another Common Core supporter.

Just a few weeks earlier, Jindal issued another legally questionable executive order forcing the state department of education to seek the governor’s approval for contracts larger than $2,000. Under such an order, White and his staffers will have difficulty simply doing something as innocuous as ordering supplies from Staples without then being accused of some violation. As part of the earlier executive order Jindal issued kiboshing Common Core implementation, the governor demanded that White turn over any documents and contracts to see if the agency has been behaving according to his standards. Particularly at issue is the fact that the PARCC consortium that has developed Common Core-aligned tests that the Bayou State will use didn’t have its plan go through an RFP process the same as other contracting efforts. The fact that states don’t always have to use RFP processes to pick vendors for its offerings (along with the inconvenient reality that Jindal was all in on this before his political ambitions led his to oppose the standards) makes Jindal’s witch hunt desperate and vicious at once.

By accusing White of illegally using PARCC tests, Jindal is essentially setting up the possibility of eventually bringing the superintendent up on both ethics and even criminal charges. Just as importantly, through his insinuations that Common Core is just a federal takeover of education — and that White and his allies on the state board are part of it — Jindal has begun embracing the conspiracy-theorizing rhetoric of Gatesers such as once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch and Pioneer Institute boss Jim Stergios. Certainly such paranoid rhetoric would make Richard Hofstadter leave his coffin and add a new chapter to his famed text. But Jindal’s entire act against White is intellectually indefensible, morally reprehensible, and unbefitting of a state chief executive. He should be forced out of office himself.

Sadly, such gamesmanship is to be expected. This is why reformers must always engage in conduct becoming. Hopefully, White hasn’t given Jindal any ammunition beyond honestly disagreeing with the governor on providing kids with high-quality education they deserve. But Jindal’s nastiness is another reminder that the reform of American public education is a war — and one reformers must be prepared to win.

Turnabout is Ravitch Play: One of the more-interesting aspect of once-respectable education historian Diane Ravitch’s transformation from dilettantish school reformer to intellectually charlatan traditionalist is how willing so many defenders of failed policies have been willing to embrace her as their own. Perhaps it is because they lacked credible allies (especially those who weren’t National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers bosses), or it could be that they, like Ravitch, are already prone to racial myopia and logical fallacies. But traditionalists have been willing to stand by Ravitch even when her nastiness has cast even harsher light on their cause.

So it is a tad interesting to see that Ravitch is now being called out by some traditionalists for being, well, who she is. What happened? See, as part of a student privacy group emerging out of the opposition to Common Core reading and math standards called Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Ravitch and her partner in crime, Leonie Haimson, sent a letter to Congress calling for restrictions on the use of student data for helping teachers and school operators improve learning for kids. Ravitch and Haimson, naturally, were signatories on the letter. But so was one of their allies in opposing Common Core, the conservative American Principles Project.

This rankled some traditionalists — most-notably Melinda Anderson (who writes the speeches given by NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and predecessor Dennis Van Roekel) — because American Principles Project also opposes the defined-benefit pensions that traditionalists also defend as well as fights against efforts to legalize gay marriage (which progressives within the traditionalist camp support). [The fact that another movement conservative opposed to Common Core, the usually-sensible Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, signed onto the document, also likely set these traditionalists on edge.] As a result of this apostasy, Anderson and others railed against Ravitch on Twitter and other social media forums.

This, in turn, led those long skeptical of Ravitch (including centrist Democrat reformers such as former StudentsFirst operating chief Dmitri Melhorn) to note that others have begun looking askance at Ravitch’s perfidy, intellectual and otherwise. For example, the fact that two years ago, Ravitch was paid by Pearson (yes, the textbook and testing giant she rails against on a constant basis) to give a speech before the National Association of School Psychologists. Oh, and the fact that she gave a speech last year to a convention hosted by Teacher Union Reform Network, an NEA and AFT sock-puppet that is also funded by outfits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an outfit that traditionalists strongly oppose. In short, Ravitch is, in the minds of some traditionalists, is a traitor to their cause.

[Just wait till they remember that this is the same Ravitch who railed against black parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in her first book, The Great School Wars: A history of New York City schools, and who made her bones battling another academic demagogue, Leonard Jeffries, over incorporating black history into school curricula.]

Given the prominence of some of Ravitch’s traditionalist critics, expect this   drama to be a C-grade version of Stalinist purging and Reign of Terror guillotining. Sure, your editor can’t look down on Ravitch for taking a single-issue approach to advancing her cause. But she should have known that allying herself with the likes of American Principles (which, from the perspective of this conservative, shouldn’t even be embraced by other conservatives) wasn’t going to end well for her.

As my mother would say: Pack some meals. This is going to be fun.