Londonderry, N.H. — It can be hard to pinpoint the moment when Gov. Bobby Jindal’s presidential quest began, but it certainly dates back long before his official announcement in June.
I’d probably point to early 2012, when Jindal launched a single-minded, heavy-handed drive to pass a set of ambitious K-12 education bills. The package, which expanded school choice and reined in tenure protection, not only overhauled education in the state but also became a key credential for a national campaign, particularly with so-called reform movement advocates.
That may work for him, as it gives him a record in an area where several Republican candidates are focusing. That much was apparent at a sympathetic education summit here Wednesday sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children and featuring six of the 17 GOP candidates, including five current and former governors. Yet the series of interviews by host Campbell Brown, a journalist turned reform advocate, also exposed some obstacles to Jindal’s breaking out of the pack.
Jindal hardly has the subject to himself. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich also ably pitched themselves as leaders in pursuing similar agendas. In contrast, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recounted their infamous showdowns with teachers unions but didn’t go much deeper. Nor did Carly Fiorina, the lone nongovernor who spoke.
And then there’s Jindal’s famous flip-flop on the Common Core education standards.
With that notable exception, what emerged from the day was a common agenda among Jindal and his competitors that’s very much in line with the party’s philosophy. It promotes school choice, both public and private, as a free-market solution that empowers customers and forces improvement through competition. It emphasizes local control and paints the federal government as obsessed with regulation and standardization. It stresses teacher accountability, embraces merit pay and detests tenure protection. It dismisses the idea that more money is needed to fix what ails the system and holds that bureaucracy crushes innovation. It views teachers unions as entirely focused on protecting their own turf (with Brown’s cooperative prodding, candidates made much of the American Federation of Teachers’ early endorsement of Hillary Clinton).
There also are a couple of areas where the rhetoric takes on a less dogmatic tone.
The speakers all celebrated the growth of charter schools, a view shared in some circles across the aisle. Indeed, Jindal found himself in the odd position Wednesday of extolling New Orleans’ charter-driven system that his Democratic predecessor put in place.
And they promoted a philosophy that’s in some ways more activist than hands-off, one that views government funding as a great equalizer, even if that means taxpayers paying for private school for children who cannot afford it. Yet it’s an approach that stays in its own silo, with no real connection to other policy areas that affect at-risk kids’ chances in life. Jindal, for example, linked better schools to reducing teen pregnancy, but he’s certainly never made that a priority.
The one issue that divides the field is Common Core, the state-driven education standards still popular with business conservatives and reform movement leaders who want to measure American students’ progress and create a well-trained workforce — yet reviled by many GOP activists, who see it as federal intrusion.
Bush, a longtime advocate, still sides with Common Core, even if he’s lately backed off use of the term for fear it’s become radioactive. “What’s that?” he joked when Brown brought up the subject. And Kasich remains defiantly pro-Common Core and scoffed at those who stuck their fingers in the wind and backed off.
Jindal, of course, has done just that. So have Walker and Christie, but it’s Jindal who’s trying hardest to strike the awkward balance between reform proponent and Common Core foe — and not coincidentally, between sophisticated policy talk and pure red meat.
Jindal acknowledged his initial support for “voluntary, locally controlled high standards.” But he insisted that supporters had been sold a bill of goods, that by linking funding to adoption of high standards, the federal government had overstepped its role. From there, his comments quickly devolved into a litany of talking points.
“This is like ‘Obamacare.’ You had to a pass a bill to know what was in it,” he said. Jindal went on to raise the hypothetical prospect that the government might try to impose history standards — Common Core covers math and language arts — and used the issue to suggest that President Barack Obama might not OK teaching about “American exceptionalism.”
Jindal also complained that his son had been docked points on a homework assignment for getting the right answer but not showing how he got there, a key component to Common Core math. Brown pushed back and said she thought her own child’s homework forced him to be thoughtful about problem solving.
That’s fine, Jindal said, but “don’t make my child go to that school.”