Schools
 

Jindal and the Core: Louisiana snubs the Manchurian Candidate

John White was the real winner in last week's BESE elections.

Though not on the ballot, John White was a big winner in last week’s BESE elections.

Diane Ravitch, the high-profile New York academic and blogger, is probably the punditocracy’s most relentless opponent of what’s been happening in public education here since Katrina. Charter schools and the choices they provide families, high-stakes testing to assure student achievement and teacher competence — all that stuff is anathema to her. As is the Common Core.

Failed governor turned presidential wannabe Bobby Jindal still postures as a fan of school reform — even after presiding over savage and repeated cuts to LSU and a push toward vouchering, so students can leave public education altogether and carry taxpayer dollars into religious schools of sometimes shockingly low quality. And like Ravitch, he has emerged as an angry foe of the Common Core.

Ravitch, a darling of teacher unions, is — these days, anyway — a creature of the left. Jindal, his hopes pinned on overcoming dismal poll numbers in Iowa, panders to the far right.

But are they really all that different? Not in the eyes of Louisiana voters, to judge from Saturday’s elections to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Neither Ravitch nor Jindal was on the ballot last weekend, but to the extent voters took any note of their posturing in the run-up to the election, both got handed their heads.

All three BESE candidates backed by Ravitch’s Network for Public Education — Lee Barrios, Jason France and Lottie Beebe — were spurned by voters. The more crushing defeat was Jindal’s: the implicit victory for state Superintendent of Education John White, once the apple of Jindal’s eye, now his whipping boy.

To the relief of the school-reform leadership in New Orleans, the incoming state school board, like the one it succeeds, will be peopled predominantly by folk who favor the Common Core. That is expected to be true no matter what happens in the two mop-up runoffs for BESE seats next month. That means BESE can be counted on to continue siding with White against Jindal’s effort to get rid of the Common Core — or a successor governor’s effort to get rid of White.

White, briefly superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, began preparing the state for the new standards and tests as soon as Jindal lifted him up as his nominee for the top state education job three years ago.

Summer before last, Jindal put a wet finger in the wind and decided he’d better reverse course on the Common Core, the set of benchmarks he had heartily embraced as a way to bring Louisiana schools up to par with better-performing states across the nation.

White, who has gained national visibility as an eduction leader, stood his ground and continued preparing for the Common Core. Jindal’s response was to file a lawsuit to block the Core — quickly deemed to be an unconstitutional infringement of responsibilities that do not fall to the governor — and, when that failed, to try sliming White with groundless accusations of corruption. It was a reach for Jindal, given that White has the look, as well as the reputation, of a choirboy.

In any case, voters signaled on Saturday they weren’t buying it.

As can be sensed from behavior like this on Jindal’s part, there’s another commonality between the governor and Ravitch, the school reform gadfly. Both are off-the-wall flip-floppers when it comes to educational policy.

Ravitch, back in her days as an assistant secretary of education in the Dubya Bush administration, was all in for charter schools. Today, in her blog and from her perch as an NYU professor, she seems to spend a lot of energy thinking up ways to discredit them.

Small wonder that New Orleans has become a special focus of her attention. Reform’s success here — dependent as it is on school choice and corroborated by test metrics on student performance — stands as a direct refutation of her best-selling 2010 book: “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education.”

“Choice” is a code word, of course, a stand-in for what Ravitch really likes to trash: charter schools. Indeed, Ravitch is much given to code words. Another favorite is to insist by sheer repetition that the 93 percent of New Orleans kids enrolled in charter schools are in fact recipients of an education that has been “privatized.”

Calling New Orleans charters “private” is a fairly clumsy way to describe schools that remain taxpayer-financed, that are overseen by elected boards at the local and/or state level and that must, like every school in the state, meet state standards or be stripped of their charters and management teams.

Parents paying tuition at Newman or McGehee or Sacred Heart can probably detect the difference between public and private education that is lost on Ravitch.

Jindal is only more notorious when it comes to flip-flopping. Back before his increasingly silly presidential campaign cost him much interest in things gubernatorial, he was a fervent supporter of the Common Core. It was an idea dreamed up, not by the Obama administration, but by the National Governors Association, which Jindal served as vice chairman.

To business leadership and centrist voters, as well as to that earlier incarnation of Jindal, the Common Core looks like a sensible way to help Louisiana schools on their long climb out of the academic cellar. The Common Core encourages states to devise curricula suited to their local and regional cultures but to hit benchmarks more or less in stride with students in the other 49 states. Thus it becomes possible for kids in a family-on-the-go to move from Cincinnati to Baton Rouge without feeling like they have landed in a schoolhouse in Uzbekistan. Or vice versa.

Alas, for Jindal and the people who hired him as governor, the road to Uzbekistan passed through Iowa. There, Jindal got the panicky feeling that the Tea Party — the group he is counting on to ease him past the Hawkeye caucuses next February — was turning against the common sense values implicit in the Common Core as, indeed, some Tea Partyers have. And so, true to form, Jindal started talking out of the other side of his mouth.

To ease away from his earlier enthusiasm for the agenda developed by fellow governors, he now decided to declare it a federal intrusion on states’ rights. A state’s right to have fourth-rate schools, perhaps.

Whatever can be said for the wisdom of Iowans, they don’t vote in BESE elections. And evidently Louisianans who do vote have learned to tune out the sometimes incoherent (and always very rapid) chatter of their absentee governor. Ravitch and her organization probably never had our ear in the first place, for all her presumptuousness in telling us whom we should vote for in the BESE elections.

John Lennon is credited with an adage that still resonates for me: “Everything is the opposite of what it is, isn’t it?”

The movie-length version of Lennon’s insight was “The Manchurian Candidate,” the 1962 Frank Sinatra/Angela Lansbury rendering of the Richard Condon novel. The gist of the story is a double reverse, in which the valiant and wholesome soldier hero (son of a Joe McCarthy-like nut) turns out to be a cat’s paw for the Commies who brainwashed him while in captivity during the Korean War.

Jindal has revealed that watching Bobby on TV’s “The Brady Bunch” was a life-changing (also a name-changing) experience for a Hindu kid called Piyush. But whatever one is to make of his political gyrations, Louisiana’s governor is not known to have undergone subsequent brainwashing and redeployment as an enemy agent. It’s just that he might as well have.

Jindal is Ravitch and Ravitch is Jindal in their uncoordinated assault on progress toward better schools.

Fortunately, as was demonstrated Saturday, Louisiana isn’t paying much mind to either one of them.

It remains to be seen if gubernatorial runoff candidates David Vitter and John Bel Edwards will stick fingers in the wind and do some flip-flopping themselves.

Vitter, the Republican, and Edwards, a Democrat, are both still sipping the anti-Core Kool-Aid, though Vitter was strongly in favor of the Common Core before he was strongly against it. Now that the people have spoken, maybe the candidates will prove to be as flexible as Jindal and Ravitch, just in the opposite direction.

In any case, here’s hoping.

Pulitzer Prize winner Jed Horne edits the opinion columns for The Lens. 

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