Common Core: Bobby Jindal says Obama forcing a national curriculum

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal charges that the US Department of Education is strong-arming states into accepting base-line standards once viewed as voluntary. Backers say that Common Core is voluntary, because some states declined to adopt it.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks during The Family Leadership Summit, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Ames, Iowa.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) sued the US Department of Education Wednesday, accusing it of violating federal law and the US Constitution by strong-arming states into adopting the Common Core State Standards and assessments.

“The federal government has hijacked and destroyed the Common Core initiative,” Governor Jindal said, in a statement. “What started out as an innovative idea to create a set of base-line standards that could be ‘voluntarily’ used by the states has turned into a scheme by the federal government to nationalize curriculum.”

The lawsuit is widely viewed as a strategy to fuel Jindal’s presidential aspirations by currying favor with Tea Party conservatives. A onetime Common Core supporter, Jindal now claims that the federal government has overstepped its role in a whole host of areas, especially in education. 

Supporters of the Common Core counter that the standards will help students be ready for college and keep pace internationally. They worry that Jindal’s move contributes to the polarizing debates that have distracted from the ongoing challenges of implementing the standards.

 Ultimately, the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana will weigh in on the merits of the case, but some education analysts say Jindal is unlikely to prevail. 

“The federalism issue is a legitimate concern – we don’t want federal government mandating curriculum. But I don’t think the Department of Education crossed the legal line,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington and a supporter of the Common Core.

In the lawsuit, Jindal claims that the Education Department’s RTTT grant competition, set up with economic recovery funds, violated the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution by coercing states into adopting the Common Core. It also alleges that the two federally supported consortia for development of testing systems are agents of the government that will, in effect, help implement a nationalized curriculum.

The lawsuit also cites federal laws such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which reads in part: “no funds … may be used by the Department to endorse, approve, or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in an elementary school or secondary school.”

It alleges that the Department overstepped its legal authority in offering waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind accountability provisions on the condition that states adopt college- and career-ready standards.

Jindal is asking the court to grant an injunction so the Department of Education cannot enforce agreements by states under RTTT and the waivers to join a consortium adopting common content standards and assessments.

In previous lawsuits, such as Connecticut’s challenge to No Child Left Behind in 2005, courts have said that the federal government is allowed to offer incentives to states to adopt various education policies, says Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. It’s similar to the federal government tying highway funds to states’ raising the minimum drinking age, he says.

Supporters of Common Core emphasize that it is a voluntary system that grew out of state leaders’ own desire to benchmark their standards internationally and cooperate to take advantage of economies of scale in developing new testing systems. They can argue that RTTT and the waivers both were clearly voluntary, since a number of states opted not to participate.

One distinction with this lawsuit, Professor McGuinn says, is that it will raise the “question about executive branch authority to make policy,” and whether the Department of Education overstepped its role by linking RTTT and the waivers so closely to adoption of common standards and assessments.

Louisiana received nearly $17.5 million through RTTT, and has adopted the Common Core and joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two assessment consortia. But Jindal has waged a fight there to block implementation of the PARCC assessments and was recently challenged in court by parents and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which continues to support the standards and assessments.

“In Louisiana, a lot of educators have fought back against Jindal…. He’s making a big to-do, but whether or not it gets anywhere, I don’t think we know,” says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

The states where educators are quietly pressing ahead with implementing Common Core don’t make the headlines as much, Ms. Ferguson says. But that work is made harder by “all the negativity and misinformation about the Common Core,” she says.

There are a lot of “thorny issues involved when elevating students to higher standards,” such as how to develop the right teaching materials and assessments, she says.

Even the debate over what the federal role should be in education is legitimate, Ferguson adds. “But I don’t think suing the Department of Education is going to get us there​," she says. That needs to be handled through a more "nuanced conversation."

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