MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Sen. Dick Brewbaker was one of the first Alabama politicians to sound an alarm against the Common Core State Standards. These days, he has some misgivings.
“What I do regret is that it has morphed from an education issue into something else,” said Brewbaker, a Republican from Montgomery. “I don’t see how you get back to the point where you have some kind of rational discussion.”
Few Alabamians had even heard of the Common Core, a multi-state set of academic standards designed to put schools across the country on the same page academically, when Brewbaker first came out against them in 2010.
But as the June 3 primary elections approach, Common Core has emerged as the one issue that every Republican candidate must address. Anti-Core activists, who see the new school standards as a federal power grab, are mounting electoral challenges to key GOP incumbents. Sitting Republican lawmakers face the scorn of tea partiers for supporting Common Core, or simply for appearing to be on the fence about the issue. And a secretive group has funneled $700,000 into Stop Common Core PAC, suddenly vaulting the newly-formed political action committee into the ranks of Montgomery’s top political spenders.
It’s a controversy tailor-made for midterm elections. A University of Connecticut poll has found that despite years of debate, three Americans out of five say they’ve never heard of Common Core. A Gallup poll released in April found that parents of school kids were more likely to support the standards than oppose them, though 37 percent were unaware Common Core existed.
The June 3 primaries, however, won’t be decided by just any random sampling of people. Midterm elections, without a presidential race at the top of the ballot, typically don’t inspire high turnout. And midterm primaries bring only the most hard-core voters, the kind who fret about the state of their party’s soul.
“For conservatives, this is a symbolic issue, like Obamacare,” said University of South Alabama political science professor Sam Fisher. “It becomes a cudgel that these groups can use to beat up on each other and advance their agenda.”
There was a time when activists found Common Core, like every set of academic standards that preceded it, about as exciting as a warm glass of milk.
“There was almost no media coverage of Common Core in 2009,” said Rick Hess, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Then, in 2011, people felt like it came out of the blue.”
In 2009, officials from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched a plan to create a single set of K-12 academic standards in core subjects — reading and math — that could be used in multiple states.
Initially, dozens of states lined up behind Common Core with little controversy.
Enter Barack Obama. The new president created Race to the Top, an incentive program that tied federal education grants to the adoption of policies favored by Washington. Adoption of Common Core gave states a boost in the competition for Race to the Top money.
For members of the then-new tea party movement, the nudge from Obama forever changed the perception of the Common Core. Instead of an effort by governors, it was now a federal effort to make every state alike.
“Some of the opposition is about the standards themselves, and some of it is culture war stuff,” Hess said. “But a lot of it plays out against a background of anxiety about the federal government, and what it can do.”
Common Core has divided Alabama’s Republican supermajority for almost as long as there was a supermajority.
The state school board adopted the standards in a 7-2 vote in November 2010, just weeks after the GOP won all the marbles in the 2010 elections. Every state-level executive office was held by Republicans, and the GOP controlled both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Riley, exercising his power as an ex-officio member of the school board, voted for the standards. Governor-elect Robert Bentley sent Brewbaker to ask the board to hold off on the vote. Bentley sided with board members Betty Peters and Stephanie Bell, who saw the standards as a federal overreach.
Brewbaker was, and is, sympathetic to tea partiers’ concerns about federal overreach. But as a former schoolteacher, he had other concerns as well. The math standards in early grades, he said, don’t really prepare kids for higher-level work later.
“You haven’t seen it yet,” he said of the math curriculum. “But you’re going to see it start to make big changes soon, especially in 9th and 10th grade, when they start rearranging when the kids take algebra.”
Last year, Brewbaker proposed a bill that would pull Alabama out of Common Core altogether. When it hit Senate and House committees, talk about algebra standards was lost in the roar of debate.
As the Legislature hashed out the Common Core issue, tea partiers raised objections that mystified many of the supporters of the new standards. At one hearing, a former member of the state textbook committee warned that Common Core would lead to textbooks that urge kids to “think like a terrorist.” Some warned that the standards would lead to collection of personal information such as data on what kids eat at home. School officials said those things weren’t part of Common Core and were well outside the scope of any set of academic standards, but they changed few minds in the anti-Core camp.
By the time a second anti-Core bill hit the Senate this year, the conversation had grown even more intense. Speakers at Senate hearings blasted the standards as “anti-Catholic and un-Christian.” Tea party leader Becky Gerritson uttered the “f-word” in one hearing, reading a sexually explicit passage from a book that was on a Common Core list of “exemplar texts” that Alabama had already rejected.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told tea partiers that he frankly couldn’t connect the dots in their conspiracy theories. It was an issue for the school board, not the Legislature, to decide, he said.
Marsh, the president pro tempore of the Senate, put Brewbaker’s bill on hold in the Senate in 2013, killing its chances of passage. He did the same this year, with a second bill by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale. It was a double-tap that would easily kill most insurgent movements in the GOP-dominated Senate.
But the Common Core debate wasn’t over yet.
While Marsh was pulling the plug on the anti-Core bill in the Senate, a newly-formed nonprofit group was beginning to run television ads against him. The Alabama Foundation for Limited Government is headed by John Rice, a former state senator with a long history of prickly, independent conservatism.
Alabamians knew Rice, but no one seemed to know where the foundation got its money. Rice refused to say.
And there was a lot of money. Over the course of five weeks, the foundation loaded $700,000 into the new Stop Common Core PAC, also headed by Rice. The PAC gave sizable donations to Marsh’s GOP primary opponent, Steven Guede, and to challengers to other figures in the Republican establishment.
The mystery money vaulted the Common Core cause back into the headlines again, just when it seemed to be playing out.
Marsh and other incumbents argued that it was the Alabama Education Association that was buying the anti-core brand. The AEA had long been a nemesis of Marsh, who is a vocal critic of labor unions.
AEA officials deny any involvement, and say they don’t have a clue where the Foundation for Limited Government’s money came from.
“We don’t know, because AEA is not affiliated at all with the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government,” said Amy Marlowe, the group’s spokeswoman.
Others say it’s possible the anti-Core money came from an out-of-state donor. Fisher, the political science professor, said there is a trend toward nationwide groups spending big money on local and state races. Still, he said, it’s just as likely that the AEA is trying to build a core of Republican candidates sympathetic to their cause.
“They’re not going to just sit on the sidelines and wait for the Democrats to come back,” Fisher said.
AEA’s critics have a mound of circumstantial evidence, but no smoking gun, to support their claim that the group is funding Stop Common Core. AEA has launched false-flag attacks in the past, forming puppet PACs with Republican-sounding titles to attack enemies in the primaries. AEA’s own PAC, AVOTE, began openly supporting some of Stop Common Core’s favored candidates after the group spent down its $700,000 this month. AEA executive secretary Henry Mabry penned an article in February that criticized the implementation of Common Core, a move that some on both sides of the Core debate saw as the group’s attempt to pivot on the issue.
Marlowe, however, says the AEA is neutral on Common Core, a position set by the group’s members at an annual meeting. There won’t be another meeting until December.
“We couldn’t change our position if we wanted to,” she said.
University of Alabama political science professor William Stewart sees AEA as a likely source for the anti-Core money. He also said AEA isn’t talking so much about its real issues with the GOP leadership — disputes about teacher pay, school funding, and the private-school scholarship program Marsh set up.
“I think it’s hypocritical because it’s another example of the AEA taking up an issue they don’t really support,” he said.
Old-school Core critics such as Brewbaker aren’t happy either. The Montgomery senator said he believes the push against Common Core did some good, forcing the school board to drop the “exemplar text” list and clarify its policies on other aspects of the state’s policy on the standards. But the debate has become so contentious, he said, that there’s now little room for constructive talk.
“For a lot of people, Common Core has become the yardstick to measure whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy,” Brewbaker said. “There are a lot of education policies besides Common Core.”