Whether Gov. Bobby Jindal tries to pull the plug on Common Core and its tests is clearly linked with his national political calculations, election watchers say.
“National ambition guides so much of what Gov. Jindal has done and is presently doing,” said Joshua Stockley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“It has guided his policy priorities, it has guided the way he has governed Louisiana, it has guided his time,” Stockley said.
“Common Core is no exception,” he added.
Jindal, who has blasted the new school standards for months, stepped up his criticism Friday when he said flatly that he wants the state out of Common Core.
He did so in the same week that two other states with Republican governors — Oklahoma and South Carolina — shelved the new academic goals, and got national attention in doing so.
Yet a recurring theme among Louisiana legislators, lobbyists and those who study politics is that Jindal’s decisions on the issue are tied as much to 2016 presidential contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere as to their impact on students in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette.
The topic is riddled with political pitfalls.
Derailing Common Core in Louisiana would spark applause nationally from some tea party members and other Republicans. Critics of the federal government would agree. And some teachers, superintendents and other educators would cheer the move.
However, it also would anger some in the moderate and traditional wings of the Republican Party.
Business leaders, who are among the biggest proponents of Common Core, would likely denounce any such action.
Even trying to kill the tests alone would likely spark something of a political firestorm here, and all but guarantee a high-profile lawsuit would be filed to block the move.
“Common Core is kind of a problem in some sense for the governor,” said Pearson Cross, who heads the Department of Politics, Law and International Relations at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Cross said players in the debate are “all over the demographics,” from critics of the federal government who see the standards as more overreach to some conservatives who favor the new rules for reading, writing and math.
“I think that is the narrow kind of path he is on,” Cross said. “I would think he is taking a nuanced line, a nuanced approach, with an eye not only on a state audience but certainly a national audience.”
In a brief interview, Jindal waved away suggestions that national politics is driving his thinking on Common Core. He said it is vital that officials listen to parents and local educators criticizing the standards.
“Other people can play politics,” he said shortly before leaving on a trip to South Carolina and North Carolina for political speaking engagements.
At the Columbia, South Carolina, GOP fundraising dinner Friday night, Jindal mostly attacked lawyers, the profession of GOP Gov. Nikki Haley’s Democratic re-election opponent.
Haley on May 30 signed a bill abolishing the new standards altogether beginning in 2015, making South Carolina the second state, along with Indiana, to formally repeal Common Core. Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill Thursday making that state the third to reject the academic standards.
On Saturday, Jindal headed to the mountains in western North Carolina for a state party convention. He is on the same speakers’ lineup as Bill Bennett, the conservative commentator who was secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan.
The Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly voted late last week on legislation that would replace Common Core standards with new ones recommended by an appointed commission. The rejection is now on the desk of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, for whom Jindal had campaigned and who has voiced support for the standards.
Jindal also used to back Common Core, and in 2010 he signed a memorandum of understanding for the state to take part in the tests that he now denounces. Until Friday the key question was whether the governor would try to unilaterally scrap the exams after such efforts in the Legislature failed.
Now the governor says he is committed to getting the state out of the new exams, possibly through an executive order, as well as the new standards.
How the latter would happen is unclear.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted Common Core in 2010 and again earlier this year.
BESE members are generally pro-Jindal, but there are no signs of any reversal on the standards by its members.
BESE President Chas Roemer, a Baton Rouge Republican who usually sides with Jindal, said the governor’s criticism is driven by his presidential ambitions.
“That’s my opinion,” Roemer said.
However, what would normally be a strictly Louisiana debate now carries ramifications far outside the state for a governor struggling to gain national traction early.
Stockley said Jindal knows that, in order to emerge in a crowded GOP presidential field, he has to establish a solid political base.
“So I think he is trying to appeal to those more conservative Republicans, those more likely to show up and vote in the caucuses and primaries,” he said.
“Gov. Jindal is running right, and he has to,” Stockley said.
Stockley has been critical of Jindal on some issues in the past, as has Albert Samuels, chairman of the political science and criminal justice departments at Southern University.
Samuels said the governor is part of the “most strident, anti-Obama everything” faction and is “competing for that constituency.”
He said that, while Jindal has criticized Common Core, he did not spend much political capital on bills in the Legislature to revamp or scrap the standards or to shelve the tests.
Robert E. Hogan, a professor of political science at LSU, said criticism of the standards makes sense among Republican presidential contenders.
“Opposition to Common Core standards is an issue that clearly resonates within the GOP base of activists across the nation, and any ambitious Republican presidential aspirant aiming to secure support from very conservative elements of the GOP would want to harness this force,” Hogan said an email response to questions.
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