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Jindal's CCSSI gambit continues on test funds issue

The politics over Common Core States Standards Initiative high-stakes testing got more high stakes as a Louisiana Legislature panel reviewed non-higher education spending prior to the start of this year’s regular session. Yet the highest stakes of all from this may appear in the national political arena.

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee heard testimony regarding the education budget, minus higher education, much of it featuring Superintendent John White. He argued that the reduction in money given the administrative activities from the general fund, which Gov. Bobby Jindal recommended going from $48 million to $25 million, would prevent the Department of Education from administering standard testing as required by state law. He said with an extra $10 million boost he could manage to contract for the tests, aligned with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

White believes the nearly-halved general fund allotment continues an attempt by Jindal to prevent the state from administering the PARCC tests – the budget identifies a reduction of $13.9 million in professional services – and with good reason as the governor went to court to try to negate the current contract. That has yet to succeed, and less than a year ago Jindal had not expressed opposition to CCSSI but then turned against it, saying his thinking had evolved on the matter that made it appear to him that use of the PARCC tests promoted too much imposition of national standards dictated by Washington.

The Jindal Administration responded to White’s plea in noting that, given the shakiness of the state’s finances, government as a whole had to make choices in what to fund. But even with the huge, $3.5 billion portion of the education budget funded through the general fund, over 90 percent of it the Legislature has only veto power regarding its Minimum Foundation Program, which is formulaic, not discretionary. And of the remainder, about a quarter goes into other instructional or obligated spending. In other words, the $10 million White seeks comes from a pot of only $150 million of other priorities also facing pressure, hence his anxiety.

If this cut is a power play Jindal, which would appear related to presidential ambitions as signs increasingly point in this direction for Jindal can use demonstration of anti-Common Core credential as a selling point to national voters, then whatever decisions White and the Legislature would make on this request could reverberate through his presumed quest. How that plays out depends upon how much Jindal cares to invest in the issue.

If the Legislature decides to reroute $10 million from somewhere else, there’s really nothing Jindal can do about it. He can wield only a line item veto as a potential response, but that would wipe out a lot more than just PARCC tests as it is an item that would appear in the budget as part of the roughly $100 million spent in both state and federal money for the “District Support Program.” And the Legislature would not carve out a line item for him to take a swing at if it wants to transfer the money. Thus, he endures another defeat on the issue and renders it unusable for weaving into a campaign narrative, for the outcome makes him look ineffective.

If it doesn’t go along with White wanting the money to be added to the entire education budget, then it has to decide where from in that budget to transfer the money, and by doing so could degrade Jindal’s campaign story. For example, it could decide to take the money out of general funding that goes to early childhood education or to the Student Scholarships for Education Excellence Program that provides vouchers to enable students that would attend schools in low-performing districts to attend private schools instead. That cutbacks in these areas would occur, areas that Jindal has emphasized as part of his achievements in office, cannot help raise his profile to the national electorate.

Because state law requires the administration of exams comparable to those of other states, and the threat of loss of federal funding looms if that is not done (as happened in Oklahoma temporarily when it withdrew from the PARCC consortium), if the Legislature believes White can find no other way of having the exams paid for, they have to choose one of these options. If not and the budget goes through as submitted in this area, he later in the budget year can ask a legislative panel for a supplemental appropriation if he can identify a revenue source, such as cutting another item in that function area, for transfer for this purpose if, again, these legislators think it’s the only way the tests can come off, assuming they want those to. Again, this would have the effect of robbing Jindal of the ability to claim any victory or effectiveness against PARCC testing in the state and would publicize service reductions in education that likely would garner more negative than positive publicity.

Finally, if for whatever reason no additional monetary help comes White’s way and therefore he cannot contract for the tests, Jindal wins but with an asterisk because he contributed to the breaking of Louisiana law, and he could not escape responsibility for that because he cannot argue that White should have found money elsewhere to give the exams when he has been arguing against giving them in the first place. Further, this would attract attention to a counterargument that the money wasn’t there in the first place because of alleged Jindal mismanagement on the economy. Worst of all, attempts by the federal government to claw back past and cut future aid would generate publicity that, on balance, likely would not be positive.

So, once again, Jindal has boxed himself into a highly risky political corner by expressing such strident opposition to CCSSI. Had he limited himself to more symbolic efforts, such as voicing displeasure and then accepting defeat when the White, his employer the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Legislature in the past refused to accede to his opposition, it could make him look sufficiently concerned and riled about the issue, but graceful in understanding that he did all he could but could not carry the day. It’s a message that would resonate with national voters.

The problem has come in that he also has made this perhaps his highest-profile issue and one on which he stakes his effectiveness as an executive. And he is correct if that he were, almost singlehandedly, able to get the state to reject Common Core and its ancillary testing, that would make him appear as somebody who really could get the job done. But if he fails after creating so much conflict and fuss that seemed needless, it makes him appear weak and injudicious in the use of power, which would end effectively any elected ambitions beyond his current office.

So how this matter’s resolution plays out has implications far beyond whether a certain test gets used next year in Louisiana. It could make or break Jindal’s national political future.

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