Analysis: Vitter switches position on Common Core, but can that shift legislative debate?



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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — U.S. Sen. David Vitter's about-face on the Common Core education standards may bolster his political base in his campaign for governor, but whether Vitter's newfound opposition will influence the upcoming legislative debate is murkier.

The Republican senator and front-runner in the 2015 governor's race delivered a surprise in a Monday morning email announcing he opposes Common Core — only four months after saying he strongly supported the multistate standards.

Common Core standards are grade-by-grade benchmarks of what students should learn in English and math, adopted by more than 40 states.

Louisiana's state education leaders and lawmakers have refused to strip Common Core from public schools, describing the standards as a way to better prepare students for college and careers.

Over the last year, Gov. Bobby Jindal has become a strong critic of the standards and is trying to get them removed from Louisiana's public school classrooms through court action, calling the standards a federal intrusion into local education.

Now, Vitter is joining the opposition, saying he wants Louisiana to develop its own, state-specific standards.

To explain the quick change of heart, Vitter described talking to parents, teachers and "others." He said those conversations led him to believe that Louisiana can't maintain control of its own education curriculum and get the support needed from parents and teachers to be successful with Common Core.

Another unwritten reason for Vitter's changed mind likely had to do with the fierce pushback he's received from conservative groups who are usually on Vitter's side, but who vehemently oppose Common Core.

Three Republicans are vying to be Louisiana's next governor: Vitter, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. One Democrat has announced his candidacy, state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Jindal is term-limited.

Vitter couldn't afford to risk splintering his traditional base of support, particularly since Angelle hasn't staked out a position on Common Core. If Angelle decided he was an opponent, he could use that position to pull support from Vitter. Dardenne backs Common Core.

Vitter wouldn't speak to The Associated Press about his changed stance, and just how active he intends to be in his newfound opposition remains unclear.

When lawmakers return for their two-month regular session in April, Common Core will again be a heated debate.

Vitter's influence, if he wanted to wield it, likely could sway votes from some lawmakers who are jockeying for favored positions with the front-runner in the governor's race. Louisiana's governor has strong influence over legislative leadership jobs.

But Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar wouldn't say whether the senator intends to push for Common Core repeal during the upcoming legislative session.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, a leading critic of Common Core, called Vitter's position switch a "momentum boost."

"I think it will help other members in the Legislature, maybe it opens the door for them to go in and change their mind," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, another Common Core opponent.

Supporters of the multistate education standards don't see Vitter's position switch as a game-changer.

"We've been having to fight the current governor on this, and having to do that with one who is running for governor is probably not much different. I still think the legislative support is strong," said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana.

The more entrenched the standards get in classrooms, testing and homework, the harder it will be to remove them. That's why the next legislative session could be a crucial moment for Common Core opponents, and that's why Vitter's direct involvement could be helpful.

But political calculations will be at play in that decision.

In the kindest terms, Jindal and Vitter have a frosty relationship. Will Vitter want to help Jindal achieve one of his major political goals, getting rid of Common Core, in the final year of his term? Will Vitter want to get involved to gain some credit of his own? Will Vitter decide that he wants to help push legislation this spring to nullify the controversy for the governor's race?

The only one who can answer those questions is Vitter, and for now, he's not talking.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.

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