John LaBruzzo is betting that two words can revive his political career and sink Conrad Appel’s: Common Core.
LaBruzzo, a former Metairie-based member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, is trying to pry fellow Republican Appel out of his District 9 seat in the state Senate, where Appel has staked out a leading role in the debate over public schools.
As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Appel has led the charge in Louisiana to implement private school vouchers, expand charter schools and loosen job protections for teachers.
But LaBruzzo is doing his best to make the Oct. 24 election almost entirely about the new Common Core academic standards that Louisiana recently adopted — and then partially dropped.
He’s hoping there are enough frustrated parents who have had to stare at their children’s incomprehensible math homework and want to take it out on the incumbent, a supporter of the new standards.
LaBruzzo has been hammering on this theme relentlessly. He even suggests in campaign mailers that Appel knew certain companies would be getting contracts from the state to help implement Common Core and bought shares in those companies beforehand.
Those accusations, which were partially cribbed from a blog called Louisiana Voice, are somewhat implausible given that the stock prices of the companies supposedly involved — multinational giants Microsoft Corp. and Discovery Communications Inc. — would scarcely be affected by small contracts in Louisiana.
In any case, the Louisiana Department of Education says neither company has any Common Core-related contract with the state.
LaBruzzo’s camp cites a news release from 2010 saying that Louisiana had approved a digital science textbook made by Discovery for use in public schools, but there is no apparent link to the Common Core, which specifies standards only in math and English.
Appel is suing LaBruzzo to get the mailers withdrawn.
Still, even if Appel succeeds in persuading a judge to issue a restraining order, LaBruzzo seems unlikely to drop the subject. In a recent interview, he called Appel “Mr. Common Core in Louisiana.”
LaBruzzo, who had initially planned on running for an open seat on the Jefferson Parish Council, said he changed his mind after meeting with a group of mothers who showed him poll numbers suggesting how unpopular the Common Core is, as well as state ethics filings concerning Appel’s stock purchases.
He also claims firsthand experience with the Common Core. His daughter attends St. Catherine of Siena School and started coming home recently with homework that her mother — an accounting and finance major — has trouble helping her with, he said.
“It’s a way of teaching that you didn’t learn and I didn’t learn,” LaBruzzo said.
Appel has had to strike a careful balance in addressing LaBruzzo’s allegations. He dismisses the claims about stock purchases as lies, but he has, in fact, been an outspoken supporter of the Common Core. He argues that Louisiana needs to raise the bar for its public schools and should have standards that are comparable with those in other states in order to gauge real progress.
At the same time, Appel is quick to point out that he never actually voted to implement the Common Core. That decision fell to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2010. And in this year’s legislative session, he helped pass a series of compromise bills that will subject the Common Core exams that Louisiana used this year to vetting and modifications by state officials.
“The Common Core is dead in Louisiana,” Appel said — a statement that not all of his opponents on the subject would agree with, given that future exams will at least take the Common Core standards as their starting point.
All of that aside, Appel argues that his career in Baton Rouge — he first took office in 2008 and won re-election without drawing an opponent in 2011 — has nothing to do with the Common Core.
“Every education reform bill in the last four years, I handled,” said Appel, who also points up his accomplishments in pushing Louisiana to be more aggressive in luring international companies to invest in the state.
To Appel, the allegations against him are an attempt by LaBruzzo to distract from his own record, though LaBruzzo hasn’t entirely backed off from some of the more controversial positions he has taken.
He still wants to pass a bill that would require Louisiana welfare recipients to pass drug tests to ensure that state money isn’t paying for narcotics instead of food or housing. “It’s for your children,” LaBruzzo said of the money. “Let’s make sure it’s getting to your children.”
But he no longer brings up a proposal he once explored to pay low-income women $1,000 to have their Fallopian tubes tied, an idea that was supposed to cut the number of residents relying on government aid.
LaBruzzo also has disavowed a 2008 vote to more than double state lawmakers’ pay. (Appel had not yet been elected at the time.) That decision may have hurt him when House redistricting threw him into an unsuccessful contest with fellow Republican incumbent Nick Lorusso a few years later. LaBruzzo says he simply erred, saw that constituents were angry and made the necessary course correction by asking Jindal to veto the pay raise.
The district the two men are vying to represent covers most of Metairie and a wedge of Uptown New Orleans near Audubon Park.