Among Louisiana’s candidates for governor, Republican Jay Dardenne is alone in his support for the divisive Common Core education standards, a position that could help define his campaign.
Stakeholders in the heated education debate disagree about whether that stance is wise or toxic for the lieutenant governor, and it remains unclear whether it could help determine Dardenne’s fate in the October election.
But it’s now a distinguishing feature that separates Dardenne from the three other contenders in the race: Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
At a candidate forum in Shreveport last week, Dardenne ardently defended Common Core, while the other three men offered varying levels of opposition to the grade-by-grade benchmarks of what students should learn in English and math.
“Now is not the time for Louisiana to retreat,” Dardenne said.
Use of the Common Core standards has stoked controversy around the country as opposition has spread, particularly among conservative Republicans.
The standards were developed in a coordinated effort among states as a way to better prepare students for college and careers and measure student performance. More than 40 states have adopted Common Core.
Opponents accuse the Obama administration of coercing states into using the standards as an effort to nationalize education and wrest control of education policy and curricula from local school districts. Such sentiments are repeated by term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal, a onetime Common Core supporter who now opposes the standards.
Meanwhile, problematic rollouts of the standards in many states have generated complaints from some Democrats, who also criticize Common Core-aligned standardized tests.
Louisiana’s state lawmakers and the state education board have refused to yank the standards from public school classrooms. Jindal and other Common Core opponents promise a renewed effort against the standards in the legislative session that begins in mid-April.
Dardenne suggests other candidates in the governor’s race have taken their positions based on “which way the wind is blowing.”
“I’m standing by my principles that we need to have stability in education,” he said.
Edwards previously had raised some concerns about the standards and testing but now has come out as a direct opponent. Angelle worked for Jindal when the governor was pushing the standards but last week announced his opposition to them.
Vitter has made the most dramatic about-face on the issue.
In August, the senator described Common Core as “very strong, significant, positive standards.” Four months later, Vitter completely reversed course, saying Louisiana should establish its own system of standards and testing.
For Republican candidates, the position taken by Angelle and Vitter puts them in the good graces of conservative groups. The stance taken by Dardenne keeps him in line with business leaders who donate heavily to political campaigns.
Not surprisingly, Common Core supporters and opponents disagree on the implications of three gubernatorial candidates coming out against the standards.
Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, one of the Legislature’s leading Common Core opponents, said having nearly all candidates for governor against the standards could help the repeal push gain traction with state lawmakers.
“I think it’s one of the biggest issues that voters are going to look at in the fall, and I think that’s why you see so many people switching their opinions on the issue,” Geymann said.
He’s not sure Dardenne could lose an election on that issue alone but added: “It’s going to make it difficult on him.”
Barry Erwin, the president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan group that supports Common Core, disagrees.
He doesn’t believe opposition from gubernatorial candidates translates into newfound opposition across the Legislature. And he doesn’t believe a candidate’s position on the standards is a deciding factor for voters in an election cycle expected to focus heavily on state financial issues.
“I don’t think Common Core is a litmus test issue for hardly anybody except some at various extremes,” said Erwin, whose organization doesn’t endorse candidates.
Dardenne also said he doesn’t see Common Core as a singular issue leading to the Oct. 24 election. He’ll find out in the coming months if he’s right.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.