Bobby Jindal came into office hoping to “go down in history as … the most boring governor of Louisiana.” No scandals or indictments, no off-color jokes about the political penalty for sleeping with dead girls or live boys.
He’s lived up to the promise in many senses. As far as anyone knows, he hasn’t gambled, philandered, taken bribes or blackmailed lawmakers. He hasn’t showed up drunk on the floor of the Legislature. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, been committed to a mental institution, or been punched in the face in a New York city men’s room — as have various of his predecessors.
Yet, at the end of his second term, NPR has seen fit to describe the governor’s latest gambit as “bizarre,” and “a bit of ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
Yes, a Louisiana governor has once again attracted political circus gawkers to our zany state, but this time he’s done it without an ounce of style. It wasn’t drink, chickie-wah-wah, or a mad quest for power that drove our governor over the edge; it was the Common Core school standards.
The question remains: Why, Bobby? Why did you cap off your sober-sided incumbency (whatever we may think of your agenda) with a hopeless one-man charge against almost everyone, including your own appointees and a Legislature dominated by your own party? Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan states the obvious: “Gov. Jindal was a passionate supporter [of Common Core] before he was against it. So this, from that situation, is about politics. It’s not about education.”
Of course the governor begs to disagree. The stated reason for his dogged resistance to Common Core turns on one very general, vague theme: fear of a “federalized curriculum” — no matter, as is pointed out repeatedly, that Common Core is not a federal program. Foes have dubbed it “Obamacore!” and that seems to be enough analysis to fire up Bobby’s rockets. But Obama had nothing to do with drafting the standards or getting states to sign on. Governors came up with the idea, with Jindal prominent among them.
And not only is Common Core not a federal program, it’s not even a “curriculum.” The Common Core standards are a recommendation. States interested in upgrading their schools are encouraged to strive toward those standards by developing curricula of their own.
Complying with the Core requires, for example, teaching younger students to cite sources or to locate specific information in a text, but does not stipulate which text. True, there is a greater emphasis on non-fiction, which is a concern for lovers of imaginative literature like me, but since when are Republicans champions of humanities and fine arts over technical education?
Jindal has asserted that tests drive curricula, something the left has been saying since the second President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program started demanding “accountability” from both public school students and their teachers. The lefties critical of so much testing came up with a logical solution: Ditch high-stakes standardized tests altogether. But the right can’t stand the idea of unpoliced learning. They’re all about tests — they just want a different one, they say.
What’s wrong with PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), the test the Jindal administration bought and scheduled for roll-out this very school year? It, too, is “a scheme to drive education curriculum from Washington, D.C.,” the governor now maintains.
In fact PARCC was designed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Pearson, private corporations based respectively in New Jersey and London that also create most other standardized tests (such as the S.A.T.) and a huge chunk of the textbook trade.
The left’s rallying cry, that curricula are being “corporatized,” is rooted in reality far more firmly than the right wing’s effort to smoke out a beltway bogeyman and claim that federal bureaucrats are dictating what children get taught.
If you wanted to avoid corporate giants like ETS and Pearson, you could go with Smarter Balanced, another test program aligned with Common Core standards. But you would still be getting some test items from the same source, since both PARCC and Smarter Balanced have contracted with Pacific Metrics for “item development” (i.e. the actual questions on the tests).
Now Jindal insists he wants no test aligned with Common Core, so it’s not just about PARCC. Shall we go back to the LEAP test then, the one that’s been used for the past couple of decades to assess the performance of Louisiana schoolchildren? Sure, if we want to “drive education curriculum” from Illinois. The LEAP was developed by Illinois-based Riverside Publishing, which also created the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, long of service in Louisiana as well as many other states. And Riverside is a subsidiary of Houghton-Mifflin, another textbook behemoth, headquartered in (gasp!) Boston.
As lefty education writer James Loewen acknowledged way back in 1995, the only escape from the textbook/test industrial complex is to ditch the tests and the textbooks altogether. Jindal’s inability to go that far is evidence that Duncan is right: We’re dealing less with educational policy than with political psychology.
What exactly is the governor’s problem with nationally normed educational standards? He offers no rational explanation, and he’s a famously smart guy. In search of an insight, it’s worth examining one of the myths the governor has embraced both personally and for purposes of self-promotion.
Like many myths, this one centers on the origins of a name. Young Piyush Jindal, as the oft-repeated story goes, chose the nickname Bobby because of his devotion to the culture, lifestyle, and values of Bobby Brady, of “The Brady Bunch,” one of TV’s last un-ironic sitcoms.
All right, I’ll admit that I, too, was for a time seduced by the show’s vision of life in America. It was very different from the world I grew up in, New Orleans’ downriver wards. It seemed cleaner, safer, and whiter. I got the message from national TV very early on that living around black people meant you were poor, probably unhappy, and soon to become either a criminal or a victim of crime.
None of that bad stuff ever happened to the Brady bunch. Jindal didn’t grow up in my neighborhood, so different fantasies of escape may have deepened his love of the show. But the core appeal was surely the same: a suburban utopia of middle-class white people untouched by the tensions and social upheavals that buffeted the real Middle America of the 1970s.
This was the era of white flight, the time when many formerly urban denizens fled the inner city and set about building their own Brady-esque utopias. Theirs was the dream that would be denied them — or so they feared — by a list of naysayers called, variously, “liberals,” “the extreme left,” “statists,” or whatever the latest coded hate word that bubbled up into common parlance.
While shows like “The Brady Bunch” simply ignored racial tension, the rhetoric of defending public education from “federal overreach” has an inescapable racial past, one that extends back through the desegregation era all the way to Reconstruction.
This explains the apparent paradox of a Brady-esque America being thwarted by the actual America — the subliminal message being that you have to fight Washington if you hope to realize the promise of America as envisioned in the “golden age” of TV sitcoms.
Equally paradoxical: The utopian society of today’s conservative imagination was dreamed up by Hollywood, but not the “liberal” Hollywood that took over TV programming after the triumph of shows such as “All in the Family.” The “Brady Bunch” was an excrescence of the other Hollywood, Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood, the one that yearned for an alternate universe. The correlative political fantasy was this: If the federal government would just “get out of the way,” little TV-family utopias would spring up everywhere.
Here’s what has made Jindal’s yearnings poignant to the point of pathetic. Our Bobby can never be a Brady, no matter how hard he dreams of it. Not because of his Indian ancestry, but because he’s from Louisiana. True, many Louisiana suburbs began to offer a Brady-esque lifestyle during the 1970s, and some still do, but other Americans just don’t see us that way and never will. We’re the wacko state, where even the most self-righteous politician usually turns out to be rotten to the core (small C) or just plain goofy.
It’s fine with me, but it has to be tough for a man like Jindal, who longs so urgently for approbation at the national level. Since he must realize he can never be a national leader, he’s decided that regional leadership will have to do. If only he were from Texas, whose own excesses and weirdness are forgiven in light of its electoral power and ill-gotten, ill-distributed wealth.
Jindal’s Common Core flip-flop is calculated to open the checkbooks in Dallas’ vast churchy suburbs, to finance his next career as presidential primary also-ran and media bulldog. A beta-male Sarah Palin on the bayou. Jindal craves love more than loyalty, but tepid allegiance is the best he’s gotten so far.
The less boring governors never settled for tepid. One of Jindal’s predecessors, Governor Earl Long, risked everything on his passion for Bourbon Street stripper Blaze Starr. Jindal has offered his hand to a Stepford wife, a conservative suburbanite, a Mrs. Brady. She may have learned to echo Jindal’s anti-federalist rhetoric, but not in a way that conceals a deeper concern: that her own Bobby Brady — a real one never named Piyush — might just come up short if measured against kids nationwide. After all, Louisiana always has come up short in national rankings. And what will that say about a governor who has tried to claim school reform as one of his signal accomplishments?
Jindal, the reformer, has yet to say what strengthened local curriculum he would swap for the Common Core standards he dismisses as being too “federal.” At this point, my advice would be to go all in.
You want a different test, reflecting a curriculum distinct to a very distinctive state? Great! Let’s add a language requirement. Let’s make Louisiana the first state in the union to require mandatory French AND Spanish for all public school kids. Why not? Both are legacy languages down here.
But of course Bobby’s real bunch, the Tea Party types to whom he now panders so frantically, would see Francophonia as an unacceptably alien departure from the Brady ideal.
The effort to make Louisiana less freakish in the national context is surely what drove the framers of the state’s 1921 Constitution to ban the use of French as a language of general instruction in the classroom, a policy reversed decades later (1968) with the establishment of CODOFIL (Conseil pour le developpement du francais en Louisiane). The state’s most innovative charter schools today truly are a model for national emulation, but the language of general instruction at schools like New Orleans’ International School of Louisiana isn’t just English.
Maybe the governor would like to authorize the French baccalaureate as at least an optional graduate exit exam in Louisiana. True, the idea wouldn’t fly very far, not even across the border to Jindal’s Texas constituency. But, hey, we want to distance ourselves from Washington, don’t we, Bobby? Laissez l’education locale rouler!