SADOW: The GOP Populists Are Back, This Time In The Common Core Fight

Yes, as noted by a reporter, the Common Core State Standards issue has spawned an odd coalition – and a familiar one at that, which demonstrates the continuing power of populism in Louisiana that challenges Republican policy leadership.

Some Republicans, headlined by state Reps. Brett GeymannCameron Henry, and John Schroder, are leading the charge for major modifications, if not outright repeal, of the state’s commitment to implement CCSS, a national set of learning targets stemming from an initiative of governors, educators, and academicians. Accepted almost four years ago without controversy by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, these legislators claim popular outcry has galvanized them to override BESE on the matter.

They claim, to varying degrees of credibility, that CCSS is a “national curriculum,” it could allow for too much federal control over a state and local matter, has not been tried, and raises data privacy concerns. A number of Democrats have joined in the criticism, but typically for different reasons, asserting the effort shills for corporate interests, sets teachers up for failure, and its emphasis on objective testing makes it “too hard.” Proponents point out that the effort represents standards, not a curriculum, that federal or corporate control of education through it appears highly illusory, much expertise has gone into its formulation, and its quest for higher standards have found many backers among teachers and administrators who put in time and effort to understand it.

But especially the split among Republicans has a familiar ring to it, and along the line increasingly defining intraparty conflict among state GOP elites: the principled, considered “traditional” conservatism versus a populism that historically fits better with Louisiana’s political culture. Populists’ worldview declares that certain diabolical forces keep the people oppressed in some fashion, and so enlightened elites must defeat these in order to elevate the people.

The division harkens back only to last year, over the issue of the budget. Then, a group of the populists, almost entirely of the GOP, calling themselves the “fiscal hawks” declared some fiscal practices, although without merit for some of these, and their practitioners, many of whom were Republicans, as anathema to quality fiscal governance. In opposing the presented budget of Gov. Bobby Jindal, they were joined by the usual cranks on the Democrat side who, if he turned water into wine, would accuse Jindal of class warfare because he wanted to satisfy the greedy rich’s tastes and keep the poor boozed up so they didn’t realize how they were being used instead of them soberly pursuing their best interests.

Eventually, the populist conservatives and liberal Democrats came up with a budget that increased taxes dramatically and with much extra spending. But they were outnumbered by the principled conservatives and moderate Democrats, who subsequently agreed with the “hawks” on the gimmickry of a tax amnesty, a small tax increase, and smaller but substantial spending increase. The most vocal leaders of the “hawks” throughout were Geymann and Henry, and Schroder wasn’t shy in his criticisms of the Jindal budget’s approach and in coming up with the compromise, either.

And now it’s déjà vu all over again. Once again, these three lead a populist charge, except this time the bogeyman is CCSS aided by some Democrats who if Jindal’s predecessor Democrat Kathleen Blanco had been able to stick around and helmed the state at the time BESE dealt with CCSS likely would be proclaiming it the greatest thing since invention of the truss. Echoing last year as well is the presence of a coalition of principled conservatives and moderate Democrats that don’t view CCSS as a conspiratorial enterprise crammed down the people’s throats in order to achieve an amorphous, ill-defined agenda that, despite this lack of definition, assuredly if not evil, at least is banal.

Where this goes is uncertain, but one likely outcome will be to modify the state’s intended participation in the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers  and perhaps wish to direct it to any of three alternatives – SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium,Dynamic Learning Maps Consortium, or National Center and State Collaborative – or even go it alone, although joining anything but SBAC would make one key aspect of CCSS, ability to compare performances across states, all but impossible. However, concerns about privacy under PARCC do seem legitimate, and all groups well may come together to address this.

Beyond that, opponents have a weapon at their disposal they went without last year. Then, for example, the issue of using “one-time money” didn’t exactly send the mass public to the barricades. But CCSS debate has shown that it can. Not only might this squeeze some extra votes out, enough to pass significant alterations to CCSS and/or its implementation, but this also might scare Jindal into not casting a veto. Still, with the Senate seeming far more sanguine on the issue, the best bet is even if House majorities could be cobbled together, the Senate probably can succeed in putting an extensive CCSS change agenda into a half-nelson for duration of the session.

Yet the larger point is, for the second year running, experiencing the schism among the recently-anointed legislative GOP majority. Those wishing for and optimistic about genuine conservative governance may find such desires tempered by the reality of a persistent faction of Republicans that on some issues will act more consistently liberal than conservative.

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