When I began my reporting career in the late 1980s there still existed a shred of rationality in political debate and even occasional moments of intellectual honesty. There was also a spirit of bipartisanship that enabled members of this state’s then eight-member Congressional delegation—some of the most powerful and effective in the country back then—to broker compromises and get things done. By today’s standards they were political moderates, whatever their party affiliation on paper, who could cross the aisle to work with the other side
Little did I know at the time but those days were fading fast. By the end of the septic Bill Clinton/Newt Gingrich years, they were gone. Today they are but a distant memory. Elected officials routinely waffle and pander to the extremist factions of their respective parties in a way that would have been shameful just a couple of decades ago. Partisan national media outlets perpetuate the charade, and the anonymity of the web gives online bloggers a forum to fan the flames of ignorance and hatred.
Even the most intelligent and well-educated elected officials have fallen prey to this political MO. The latest example is U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who exemplified just how far we have strayed from any semblance of reasoned discourse, when, on Dec. 1, he announced in an email to supporters that he no longer supports the Common Core educational standards.
Never mind that just four months ago, when Gov. Bobby Jindal was trying to block the implementation of Common Core in Louisiana, Vitter—a leading contender for governor in 2016—was front and center defending the “strong standards,” as he called them at the time. Perhaps he was just trying to distance himself from the unpopular Jindal. Whatever the reason then—clearly it wasn’t principle—the motivation now is to curry favor with the far, far right.
In his email, for instance, Vitter uses buzzwords carefully chosen to sound the alarm bells among his supporters. Playing to the crowd, he says, “Many Louisianans legitimately fear Common Core will become a federal government takeover of education under President Obama and his far-left allies.”
One could argue a courageous politician should lead and educate those he purports to serve when they are misinformed, as are so many who oppose Common Core for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps he could have engaged in a debate over ways to improve Common Core. Instead, Vitter took the politically expedient road, giving tacit credence to the notion that Common Core is a liberal conspiracy designed to indoctrinate children and poison their minds.
Local business leaders feel they’ve been duped, and with good reason. They had embraced Vitter’s early campaign and thought they had in him an ally.
“We’re disappointed but we still support Common Core,” says the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s Brigitte Nieland.
“This is disappointing,” says the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s Adam Knapp. “Common Core is exactly what the business community needs.”
Adds businessman and education reformer Lane Grigsby: “Once again, political aspirations trump good judgment.”
Business leaders firmly believe Common Core is a key measure in the ongoing effort to tackle Louisiana’s education woes. Their support for the curricula and testing is not driven by a desire to data mine children’s information or turn them into pagan Communists, which are two of several myths about the system. Rather, they are desperate to do something about the way we teach students in this country and especially in this state.
Consider that the U.S. ranks 14th in the world—behind a slew of Asian and European countries, including Russia and Poland—in the latest Pearson Education report measuring cognitive skills and educational attainment. Louisiana, meanwhile, has the second-worst school performance score in the nation, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s also near the bottom of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s ranking of student performance. Education Week gives the state’s students an F.
These rankings reflect some real, systemic problems and have serious repercussions for the economy. There is a direct correlation between academic performance and workforce readiness. Business leaders see evidence of this every day as they try to recruit, hire and train qualified people to fill their jobs and attract investors to our communities.
Common Core is not a perfect solution but it’s one of the best options on the table. Yes, it could benefit from tweaking. There are sections of curricula that could be revised and requirements that could be added or dropped. Individual states have latitude to make some of these changes.
But to advocate abolishing the standards altogether in order to appease an unreasonable political faction that is basing its opposition on fallacious reasoning is more than a disappointment. It’s an outrage.
Vitter told his supporters in the email that he plans to create a system of Louisiana-specific standards that are even tougher than those imposed by Common Core. Skeptics have suggested that’s like Les Miles ranking his Tigers each week against only the other football teams in the state. LSU would always dominate that coach’s poll but it wouldn’t say much about how the team stacks up against its peers.
Though the governor’s race is nearly a year away, Vitter’s about-face suggests it is going to be 11 long months of empty rhetoric rooted in the politics of extremism. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the 1980s.