NEW ORLEANS — Looking to bolster his national image ahead of a likely 2016 presidential bid, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is hitching his wagon to the growing movement against the nationwide school standards known as Common Core, which have become a lightning rod for the tea party and other conservative activists.
The Republican governor won a major round of applause at the recent Republican Leadership Conference when he highlighted his opposition to the Obama administration-backed Common Core. He took a firm stand against the mathematics and English education standards that Louisiana, 44 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted.
“I am for standards. I am for our kids learning,” the second-term governor said. “I am for our kids being able to compete, but it seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with the bureaucrats in the federal government — especially [those] who think they know best and [that children] don’t need to listen to parents.”
Once seen as a rising star of the party, Mr. Jindal, the son of immigrants from India, has struggled to carve out a niche on the national stage and is still haunted by his widely panned 2009 rebuttal to President Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress.
The 42-year-old former Rhodes scholar often has been overshadowed by some of the party’s more charismatic emerging figures, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
With more than 18 months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nomination race, Mr. Jindal also is seen as more of a long shot to win the nomination than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who backs Common Core.
But Mr. Jindal has built a reputation as a policy wonk and has been recognized as one of the Republican Party’s leading advocates for school choice, which advocates say liberates children trapped in failing schools and offers the GOP an avenue for broadening its appeal with minority voters. He was one of the first governors to sign on to Common Core when the initiative was launched in part by the National Governors Association in 2009.
His current opposition to Common Core puts him at odds with John White, the Louisiana state superintendent of education, who was Mr. Jindal’s top pick for the job.
It also puts him out of sync with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose foundation helped create the standards, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which bankrolled an ad in April touting Mr. Jindal’s previous support. The Obama administration did not develop the Common Core standards but has provided strong political and financial incentives to states that adopt them.
With his outspoken opposition, however, Mr. Jindal finds himself on the same page as grass-roots conservatives, who dub the standards “Obamacore” and fear they are part of an effort to inculcate liberal ways of thinking in students.
“They are not only trying to separate our children from their parents, they are trying to separate our children from their God,” Sally Campbell, of the Christian Coalition Louisiana, said during a Republican Leadership Conference breakout session on Common Core. “That is what they want to do. They want a godless society.”
Activists say they want more than Mr. Jindal’s verbal opposition to Common Core. They want him to support legislative efforts, or use his veto power, to put the brakes on some of the standardized tests. South Carolina and Oklahoma this month became the second and third states, after Indiana, to officially rescind their support of Common Core.
Rep. Brett F. Geymann, a Republican from Lake Charles who has led efforts to gut Common Core, said Mr. Jindal could have done more at the statehouse to get lawmakers on board.
“He has not been engaged in the legislative process to get rid of Common Core, whereas with school choice he was very much engaged,” Mr. Geymann said. “So it is [the] polar opposite.”
Mr. Geymann, though, said Mr. Jindal’s most recent comments lead him to believe that the governor will act unilaterally on the issue and speculated that the governor’s national aspirations are likely critical to his decision-making process.
“I think, across the whole country, you are hearing the same debate in every state,” he said. “Every state is having this same issue, and many legislatures are voting to do away with it. So I think the national scene certainly is part of his decision to re-evaluate his position on Common Core.
“We want him to take care of Common Core, and if it elevates him on the national scene, so be it,” he said. “That is not our concern. Our concern here is what is going on in the state.”
At the Republican Leadership Conference, opponents of Common Core said they were happy to have Mr. Jindal on their side but were not sure whether he was truly committed to the cause.
“We have had rallies against Common Core at the capital, we have had forums about it, and we have inundated him with phone calls, letters and emails,” said Anna Arthurs, a physician. “It wasn’t until he started traveling outside the state of Louisiana and hearing from grass-roots conservative groups elsewhere that suddenly he has made definitive statements against Common Core. So it makes us question just exactly his true intent after he was so adamantly for Common Core.”
Sara Wood, a lawyer and mother of four, said Mr. Jindal has talked the talk and now she wants him to walk the walk, much like he did on school choice.
“When he wanted something done, he got what he wanted done,” Mrs. Wood said. “Taking a back-seat approach to me is unlike Jindal. So the only logical conclusion I can come to is he is not as committed as he has said.
“All we have is words right now,” she said. “We’ve had no action.”