Trying to avoid a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state’s top school board wants a meeting between the governor and Louisiana’s education superintendent, hoping the two men can end a dispute over public school standardized tests.
But finding common ground in what has become a fundamental disagreement over the direction of state education policy — amid a national debate over the Common Core education standards — seems like a long-shot.
“Mature individuals ought to be able to sit down and work things out,” said Jane Smith, a Jindal appointee to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who pushed for the meeting. “Everything does not have to be settled in a court of law.”
Anybody seeking compromise must be hoping the conversation between Jindal and Superintendent John White goes better than the exchange of words between education leaders and Jindal’s staff at a six-hour BESE meeting last week to discuss the dispute.
“You clearly have a mess here,” said John Warner Smith, CEO of the organization Education’s Next Horizon, during the meeting.
At issue is Jindal’s changed position on Common Core, standards adopted by more than 40 states of what students should learn in math and English.
White and a majority of BESE members, including President Chas Roemer, support the standards as a way to better prepare students for careers and college. Lawmakers also have voted to maintain Common Core in Louisiana.
That’s at odds with Jindal, a one-time supporter of Common Core who now says the federal government is trying to use the multistate standards to control local curriculum and educational systems.
To chip away at the standards, Jindal partially suspended a contract this month that White intended to use to buy testing material tied to Common Core.
Jindal administration officials said White’s Education Department violated state procurement laws in moving to the standardized tests prepared by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. They said White must competitively bid for a new testing contract.
“All that this discussion has been about is about following the law,” said Jindal policy director Stafford Palmieri. “It is not about whether or not the governor controls the content of our state assessments or the content of our state standards.”
Despite that claim, Jindal acknowledged he targeted the testing contract to undermine Common Core in Louisiana. He said by requiring a competitive bid, the Education Department wouldn’t be able to use the PARCC test.
“This does get us out of Common Core, because Common Core to my mind is defined by the test,” he said.
White and Roemer said Jindal has overstepped his legal authority and is trying to use his oversight of state contracts to undermine education policy set by BESE and the Legislature.
So, if White and BESE leaders say they must use a test that matches the Common Core standards and the governor doesn’t want Louisiana using those standards, where’s the middle ground to negotiate?
White urged the education board to take the matter to court. He said testing plans for the upcoming school year are stalled because of “roles and responsibility confusion.”
Instead, the board voted to hire outside attorneys but specified no legal action can be taken against Jindal without another board vote. Meanwhile, Jindal and White are supposed to meet sometime over the next two weeks.
Asked if the governor believed there was room to compromise, Jindal spokesman Mike Reed suggested the administration wasn’t budging from its position.
Roemer said he didn’t think a compromise could be reached. But other board members who support Common Core made it clear they are reluctant to get into a messy legal battle with the governor.
If they want to stay the course with the standards, that might be their only option.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.