State lawmakers are debating many hot topics this spring, but two stand out for dealing with the perceived level of "federal intrusion" into the lives of Louisianans. The first is Louisiana's compliance (or lack of it) with the REAL ID Act, a federal law that set new standards for state drivers' licenses and identification cards after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second is Louisiana's continued participation in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is designed to raise the bar for student achievement and foster critical thinking skills in America's school children.
Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 with little controversy. While it has good intentions, its implementation has been a disaster at both the federal and state levels. That triggered an almost-immediate attempt to repeal the Act, and in recent years Congress has delayed implementation twice to give states more time to prepare for its consequences.
Not only is Louisiana unprepared for REAL ID, lawmakers in 2008 directed the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections not to implement it. (REAL ID foes claim the Act creates a federal database of citizens.) Now we're about to deal with the consequences of refusing to comply with REAL ID. Within two years, a Louisiana driver's license will no longer get you aboard a commercial airline — not even for domestic flights.
State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, hopes to broker a workable compromise. Her House Bill 907 would authorize two Louisiana IDs — one that complies with REAL ID and one that follows current state standards. Under St. Germain's measure, Louisiana citizens could opt out of REAL ID, but doing so likely would require bringing a passport to board domestic flights. Those who choose to comply with REAL ID could continue using their drivers' licenses to fly commercially.
The Common Core standards are even more contentious. Last week, after a marathon meeting, the House Education Committee rejected two proposals that would have fundamentally altered Common Core. House Bill 381, by state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles (who's also a leading opponent of REAL ID), would have sidelined Common Core's benchmarks and formed a 32-member committee to set new educational standards. Despite fervent politicking by liberals as well as conservatives who dislike Common Core, the committee killed Geymann's bill by a 12-7 vote. House Bill 558 by state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Jefferson, met the same fate. Henry's bill would have barred school districts from using Common Core's assessments, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
Louisiana adopted Common Core in 2010 with Gov. Bobby Jindal's enthusiastic support, but the governor began crawfishing as soon as it became controversial. On the day of last week's committee votes, Jindal finally showed his hand — sort of — by signing "green cards" signifying his support of Geymann's and Henry's bills. The governor did not personally show up to speak for the bills, however; nor did anyone from his administration. Jindal was in Washington, D.C., promoting his new alternative to the Affordable Care Act — and his budding campaign for president.
Despite once embracing Common Core, Jindal now says he opposes a "one size fits all" approach to education — without saying what that means. The governor can't have it both ways. After all, the ACT test, which PARCC tracks, is a national benchmark that many high school seniors use to apply for college. Moreover, Jindal's newest position on Common Core puts him at odds with his handpicked state education superintendent, John White, who supports Common Core enthusiastically.
Like the REAL ID Act, Common Core had a troublesome rollout. Some school districts feel they did not get adequate support from the state Department of Education. Many parents gripe that kids who once brought home A's and B's are now falling behind because Common Core demands more that just the right answers. These are valid concerns.
Other criticisms of Common Core are unfounded, including the claim that it's a federal takeover of public education. Common Core originated with a group of governors during the presidency of George W. Bush. It is not an initiative of President Barack Obama, although he (along with many Republicans and business leaders) supports Common Core.
Change is never easy. Common Core is complicated. A recent study by the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication showed that 49 percent of Louisiana residents are "not very familiar" or "not at all familiar" with Common Core. As lawmakers continue to debate Common Core, we hope they will find ways to improve it — not weaken it or abandon its standards.