A legal battle over the fate of Common Core, the national education standards developed by a coalition of governors and educators and adopted by the vast majority of states, may be brewing in Louisiana.
The state’s top education board voted on Tuesday to retain legal counsel, a sign it is gearing up for a lawsuit against Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal after he issued a series of executive orders in an attempt to withdraw the state from the Common Core.
Jindal’s decision has sparked an internecine war among Republicans in Louisiana, putting him at odds with his handpicked superintendent of education, John White, and his Republican-dominated legislature. White has said the governor doesn’t have the right to unilaterally prevent the state from adopting the standards and that the move is less about the nature and quality of the education Louisiana children receive and more about “presidential politics.”
The great lengths to which Jindal has gone to pull Louisiana out of Common Core are one indication of the standards’ toxicity among conservative Republicans. His executive orders overrode not only the decisions of the state board of education but also the legislature. That GOP-controlled body rejected several bills that would have removed the state from Common Core and, in fact, passed a bill sponsored by a Democratic legislator in mid June — Jindal vetoed it — that endorsed the standards.
Like the government shutdown, immigration reform, and the midterm elections themselves, the Common Core has pitted the tea-party wing of the GOP against business interests and more moderate, establishment forces. The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have for months been running ads in favor of Common Core. The target: skeptical Republicans.
The issue has divided the prospective 2016 candidates along the same lines and has obvious implications for Jindal’s presidential prospects, especially if Louisiana Republicans are forced into a legal showdown.
Several of the GOP’s potential 2016 candidates have sought to distance themselves from the standards. In fact, of the twelve Republican governors who have denounced the program, four are talked about as potential presidential contenders: Texas governor Rick Perry, who has signed a bill banning Common Core from his state; Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose staff drafted a bill to replace the standards, though it went nowhere in the state legislature; Indiana governor Mike Pence, who withdrew his state from the Common Core and in recent months proposed alternative standards, which have themselves come under fire from the Tea Party for looking too much like Common Core; and Jindal.
Meanwhile, former Florida governor Jeb Bush is perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the Common Core, and he has denounced fellow Republicans for their pivot on the issue. “I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country,” Bush told Fox News in April. “And others have — others that supported the standards all of a sudden are opposed to it.”
New Jersey governor Chris Christie is the only potential top-tier candidate besides Bush who remains a staunch supporter. The Obama administration has praised the standards, and secretary of education Arne Duncan inflamed tea-party Republicans last November when he denounced the opposition as “white suburban moms” who’d discovered “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Christie has said that some opposition is a “knee-jerk” response to the president’s support and that he agrees with Obama on the issue. “We’re doing Common Core in New Jersey and we’re going to continue,” he said last August. Ohio governor John Kasich, another potential Republican presidential contender, also remains a supporter.
Jindal has said he changed his mind because he was unaware adopting the standards would result in so much federal intrusion. “When the standards were first proposed, way back in 2010, we were told this was going to be a state-led effort,” he told a local Louisiana television station. “That didn’t happen.” He has also said he’s responding to the widespread criticism he’s hearing from conservatives and members of teachers’ unions alike.
But state officials dispute Jindal’s ability to withdraw Louisiana from Common Core through executive orders. Among other things, those orders required the state department of education to seek a new contract for standardized-testing services. The department is saying it plans to continue with the current contract, which was instituted in 2010 and which will purchase tests that follow the Common Core standards. The board’s decision on Tuesday to hire legal counsel is an indication that it is willing to go to court to buck Jindal.
Education superintendent John White says the dispute is not just about education but about constitutional government, calling the argument a “question of the powers of government granted to different elements within government by the constitution and the law.” Like Common Core itself, the issue is a potentially explosive one in a presidential primary. Conservatives across the country have recoiled at what they see as President Obama’s abuse of executive orders and it is not difficult to see the charge being leveled against Jindal in a GOP primary.
“Whether it be Plan A, Plan B, or Plan C, there must be clarity as to which body under law decides which test and which test questions are appropriate,” White said Tuesday.
The Jindal administration has not budged, nor has it ruled out its own lawsuit against the board of education. Expect to hear more about it on a Republican presidential debate stage sometime in 2015.
— Eliana Johnson is a national reporter for National Review Online.