Analysis: Dispute over Common Core gets personal
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The clash over whether Louisiana's public schools should teach to the Common Core education standards has devolved into a bitter public feud that will have one-time political friends sitting on opposite sides of courtrooms.
Dueling lawsuits have been filed. An ethics complaint is in the works. Contracts are being audited. Accusations have been lodged of illegal behavior, ethical impropriety and political pandering.
And while the attacks grow more personal, major questions about the educational path of the state's public schools remain unanswered with students returning to classrooms in the next two weeks.
The upheaval started in June, when Gov. Bobby Jindal issued executive orders seeking to undermine use of Common Core and its associated testing.
The Common Core standards are grade-by-grade benchmarks of what students should learn in English and math. They have been adopted by more than 40 states and were once championed by Louisiana's Republican governor.
Supporters of the standards praise them as a better method for preparing students for college and careers after high school. Critics say the standards are untested, raise privacy concerns about data-sharing and damage state autonomy.
Jindal now opposes Common Core as a federal intrusion into local education, echoing the concerns raised by tea party groups around the nation.
But while the governor changed his mind on the standards, a majority of members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, still support Common Core, along with Jindal's hand-picked state education superintendent, John White.
State lawmakers also refused to jettison Louisiana's use of the standards earlier this year.
When Jindal suspended the testing contracts, he said the education department didn't follow state procurement law and needed to seek competitive bids for the work. But he also said the move would help to get "Louisiana out of the Common Core."
White and BESE President Chas Roemer said the governor overstepped his legal authority.
Roemer accused Jindal of trying to govern by executive fiat and of changing his position on Common Core to bolster his support from conservative organizations for a possible 2016 presidential bid.
Education groups and business organizations that once were allied with Jindal accused him of political gamesmanship and misuse of his oversight of state contracts. Jindal's Division of Administration accused White, his department and BESE of refusing to follow state contracting laws and a pattern of possible contracting improprieties.
Seventeen state lawmakers who oppose Common Core — but who couldn't persuade their colleagues to shelve the standards — filed a lawsuit alleging the state education board and the education department didn't follow state law in enacting the standards.
Parents, teachers and organizations who support Common Core filed a lawsuit of their own, claiming Jindal's violated the Louisiana Constitution by meddling in education policy that should be decided by the Legislature and implemented by BESE. The education board has joined in that lawsuit, with even two of Jindal's board appointees agreeing to sue the governor.
Hearings for both lawsuits are scheduled for mid-August.
Outside the actions in District Court, Common Core opponents also say they intend to file an ethics complaint against White and several BESE members, raising questions about conflicts of interest and ties to organizations that they say hold "undue influence" in education policy.
BESE member and Common Core critic Jane Smith, the only Jindal appointee to vote against suing the governor, posted a message on Facebook talking of planned audits and alleging ethics violations in the Department of Education.
White issued a letter a few days later, saying he felt he was being personally attacked with suggestions of "unfounded malfeasance" within his office. He defended his support of Common Core and testing aligned with the standards, outlined how he's reimbursed for travel expenses and speeches to outside groups and said he's notified the ethics board of each transaction.
The nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a government watchdog organization, said the situation has reached a "crisis level" and blamed the governor for causing the educational chaos.
Whether the feud is rooted in education policy or politics, there doesn't appear to be a quick resolution on the horizon for those most affected by its consequences: Louisiana schoolchildren.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.