U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan takes jab at Louisiana officials over Common Core in New Orleans speech _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are greeted at Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly with the school's band playing "Do What 'Ya Wanna." Duncan was in town to visit schools and to speak at the BGR luncheon Thursday, December 11, 2014.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took a veiled jab at some Louisiana officials Thursday, telling a New Orleans audience that he doesn’t care whether or not states adopt the Common Core standards but that whatever they do instead should be equally rigorous.

“What we’ve done is encourage states to raise their standards,” Duncan told a crowd gathered for the Bureau of Governmental Research’s annual luncheon at the Marriott Hotel. “So many states have dummied down their standards to make politicians look good ... and to me, that’s one of the most insidious things that can happen in public education.”

Duncan said the Obama administration has been willing to work with conservative states like Texas and Oklahoma that opt out of the Common Core standards and propose something just as demanding. But that hasn’t happened everywhere.

“What we’ll fight against is politicians who want to dummy down standards, because that’s lying to children and families to make themselves look good,” Duncan said, drawing loud applause.

While Duncan made no direct mention of any Louisiana officials, it was already clear that he and Gov. Bobby Jindal would not be shaking hands during his visit.

The governor, who supported the new standards before they became politically radioactive, fired off a gloating statement Thursday morning that said Duncan should take a lesson from Sen. Mary Landrieu’s election defeat on Saturday. “Mary Landrieu supported Common Core and was soundly defeated — the voters have spoken,” Jindal wrote.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., also has executed an about-face on the standards, coming out against them two weeks ago after publicly criticizing Jindal months earlier for flip-flopping. Vitter is running for governor in 2015; Jindal, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits, is mulling a bid for the White House.

Duncan’s remarks on Common Core came during a question-and-answer session that was moderated by former WWL-TV anchor Dennis Woltering.

In his prepared remarks earlier, Duncan spoke mainly about the turnaround in the New Orleans school system that has taken place over the last decade, which has seen the ruin of Hurricane Katrina, a state takeover of most campuses, a conversion of the district to almost all charters and steadily rising test scores.

“You show us what’s possible, and you give all of us reason for hope,” he said.

Duncan ticked off a litany of impressive statistics — for instance, that before the storm, 60 percent of New Orleans students attended failing schools, versus 5 percent now. And he highlighted the stories of specific students who overcame steep challenges, such as a student at Cohen College Prep who is now a freshman at Yale and a once-homeless kid who attended Sci Academy and now goes to Bard College.

He also noted that, while still far from a model of integration, the New Orleans public school system now has several campuses where the student population roughly mirrors the city’s demographics, including Morris Jeff, Homer Plessy and Bricolage Academy.

Woltering reminded Duncan of perhaps his most infamous quote — that Katrina had been “the best thing that happened” to the city’s schools — and Duncan seemed to welcome the chance to revisit it.

“Obviously, that quote was not my best quote ever,” he said. “The hurricane was obviously a devastating, devastating tragedy and disaster. But I think the point that everyone knows I was trying to make is that the before-and-after story is pretty stark. ... You had a system that was pretty dysfunctional, where academic success was much more the exception than the norm.

“Now, by virtually every measure, New Orleans is getting better faster than the rest of the state. ... To see the progress despite the trauma, despite the devastation, I’m just in awe of what this community has done collectively, and I want to shine a spotlight on those improvements.”

At the gathering, the Bureau of Governmental Research also announced its new directors and officers.

The new directors are: Bob Brown, managing partner at Paradigm Plus Consulting; Kelly Brown, CPA; Maureen Clary, director of asset management at Corporate Realty Inc.; Hunter Hill, New Orleans market president at IberiaBank; H. Merritt Lane III, president and CEO of Canal Barge Co.; James Williams, managing partner of Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams; and Woltering.

The new officers are: chairman, Mark Mayer, president of Peter Mayer Advertising; vice chairman, Hardy Fowler, retired partner at KPMG LLC; secretary, Ludovico Feoli, executive director of the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University; and treasurer, J. Storey Charbonnet, equity member at Johnson Rice & Co. LLC.

Also, three directors were re-elected to three-year terms: Dr. Nicolas Bazan, director of the LSU Health Sciences Center; Joseph Exnicios, president of Whitney Bank; and Denise Thornton, founder and CEO of Beacon of Hope.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter @gordonrussell1.