U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was presumably taking a swipe at Gov. Bobby Jindal when, during a recent speech in New Orleans, he averred that politics and education shouldn’t mix.

Jindal, gracious as ever, had greeted Duncan by issuing a statement inviting him to learn his lesson from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s failure to win re-election. It was true, as Jindal pointed out, that Landrieu “supported Common Core,” but to suggest that’s why she lost is unusually dishonest, or idiotic, even for a politician. Such is the current state of Landrieu’s party that the D after her name stood for doomed.

Duncan in his speech said states could take Common Core or leave it; his only concern was to see them all adopt rigorous academic standards instead of letting politicians preen themselves over the spurious successes of dumbed-down systems.

Keeping politics and education apart is a pipe dream, which, for Duncan, may be just as well for he wouldn’t have a job otherwise. So long as presidents appoint education secretaries, politics and education will be inextricably linked, as the furor over Common Core amply demonstrates.

When Jindal, after enthusiastically endorsing Common Core, suddenly decided it was a totalitarian exercise in “social engineering” reminiscent of Moscow, hardly anyone in Louisiana thought his Damascene moment bespoke a concern for the quality of public education. Ever since Jindal decided he wanted to be president, political considerations are assumed to dominate his calculations, and Common Core is anathema to the fire-eating fringe he figures might swing the GOP nomination.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter has never been Jindal’s greatest fan within the Republican Party and used to mock him for opposing Common Core. But after declaring himself a candidate to succeed Jindal as governor, Vitter performed his own about-face on the issue a couple of weeks ago, explaining that he had seen the light “after listening to literally thousands of teachers, parents and others.”

Not to accuse Vitter of exaggeration, but that sounds like quite an earful.

The possibility of opportunistic posturing cannot be dismissed whenever a politician undergoes a conversion, but Vitter’s is not so obviously expedient as Jindal’s, for Common Core continues to enjoy strong support in Louisiana from business groups and corporations who bankroll GOP candidates. Vitter is such a strong favorite to be our next governor that he hardly needed the pat on the head he received from the tea party for repudiating Common Core anyway. Regardless, keeping politics out of education is not an option.

Just ask John White, who was appointed Louisiana’s superintendent of education on Jindal’s instructions back when everyone was for Common Core. White remains vociferously so and thus has found himself mixing it up politically with Jindal. Now, it seems that the politics of education might separate them further.

The issue this time is the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays in-state college tuition for Louisiana students who meet less-than-stringent academic requirements. Jindal always has been against meddling with TOPS and probably always will be, because its puts $250 million a year into the pockets of grateful voters.

A report prepared for the Board of Regents has reached the entirely unsurprising conclusion that the primary beneficiaries of TOPS come from white, middle and upper class families. That was always the intention; otherwise, legislators would have imposed a means test. Without one, the privileged will naturally be more likely to qualify for a grant. When White describes the report as “tragic,” perhaps he can be accused of exaggeration.

He does not advocate an income cap but suggests the only way to give poor black kids an even break is through the general raising of standards that Common Core will bring. In this, he echoes Bill Gates, the biggest backer of Common Core, who has said the aim is to close the gap between “low-income” and “suburban kids.”

That was the remark that led Jindal to join the chorus on the right wing denouncing Common Core as “social engineering.” Perhaps he thinks Gates wants to bring politics into education.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.