Voucher Controversy Embroils Alabama Common Core Bill

Published March 6, 2013

UPDATE, 1:19 p.m. ET: As Alabama education politics roils over a surprise school choice bill that had lawmakers shouting at each other last week, the Senate Education Committee today decided it will vote March 13 on a bill withdraw the state from the Common Core.

Voucher politics complicate negotiations between the legislature and state board of education on who will handle what Rep. Ed Henry (R-Decatur) calls a “hot potato”: whether national K-12 requirements for what kids learn in math and English constitute federal intrusion into curriculum.

“The word I’m getting from the state school board is they will pull us from Common Core without legislation,” Henry said. Having the legislature do the board’s job smacks too much of judicial activism and other government overreach, he said.  

Alabama is unique among Common Core states in developing its own tests for the standards rather than participating in one of two national testing groups. State education board member Charles Elliott said he expects other states will use Alabama’s independent tests as a model. Alabama also did not receive a Race to the Top federal grant, which required recipients to adopt Common Core after private organizations developed it.

Initially every Senate education committee Republican cosponsored the bill, but several have reversed their support after meetings with state Superintendent Tommy Bice and education board members, and the bill currently does lacks the votes to pass, said Ken Freeman, a grassroots organizer with the Alliance for Citizens Rights.

Bait ‘n Switch?
Local grassroots leaders are simmering over a hearing on Core withdrawal bills Senate Bill 190/House Bill 254 last week in which they said lawmakers switched the ground rules for testifying with no warning.

Before the hearing, the House and Senate education committee chairmen told those testifying each side would have 30 minutes to speak, room for approximately six speakers, said Freeman and Elois Zeanah, president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, in separate interviews.

When they arrived, about 120 bill supporters were shooed away from the hearing room into the gallery because only those testifying could enter the room, Zeanah said. After one person on each side testified, bill sponsor and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) announced 80 new people had signed up to speak, so everyone had to limit their testimony to two minutes each. Then committee members directed every question to Bice and his staff, Freeman said.

“Not once did either chair call one of our experts to give a comment or ask a question to refute the superintendent,” Zeanah said. “We were all in disbelief. It seemed a setup, or a gross misunderstanding.”

The effect was to divert visible support from the bill and force those testifying for it to slash their testimony on the spot, precluding two people who had flown in from out of state from testifying, Freeman said.

Bill proponents “got shortchanged,” Henry said: “I’m not sure why Brubaker did that.” He said to even things out legislators may give bill proponents another chance. Whether that will occur this morning during the committee meeting or later was put to every person interviewed, with varying answers. SRN contacted Brewbaker’s office at least three times over five days, and received no response.

Abundant ‘Misinformation’
State board members who support the Core and grassroots organizers who don’t said the other side has been spreading “misinformation.”

Board member Mary Scott Hunter said she heard a lunchtime presenter tell a Republican women’s meeting that Common Core essentially means President Obama will be teaching in Alabama classrooms. Elliott has heard so many complaints about the three little pigs being used to teach socialism that his daughter gave him the children’s book for Christmas as a joke.

“If any of this stuff that people were talking about—Mother Earth, fatherland, social engineering—were in Common Core, we would never stand for that,” Hunter said.

Bill proponents said the education agencies copied Common Core, added some 10 percent, and called it Alabama standards. They also noted the bill precludes the state from, as others are doing in conjunction with the Core, sharing longitudinal student data with the federal government “beyond what is necessary for basic administrative needs or compliance with requirements of the United States Department of Education.”

State education officials adamantly denied sharing non-anonymous student data with the federal government. Race to the Top aside, every state agreed to build data systems through receiving other federal money, according to the 2007 American Competes Act, and the U.S. Department of Education has recently reinterpreted privacy protections for such data.

Good Intentions, Frustration
About the only Common Core-related thing all sides seem to agree on is that their opponents mean well.

“These are good people, good mommies and daddies,” Elliott said. “They don’t want the president of the United States to tell their child how to diagram a sentence.”

Because hastily passing the voucher bill damaged relationships between Republican lawmakers and the state superintendent, Henry said, legislators are trying to repair the damage by taking more time on other education-related bills, including the Common Core measures.

Having the state board handle the Core essentially kills resistance, Zeanah said, since the board consistently upholds it: “[Legislators] want to try to get rid of [this bill] to get constituents off their backs.”

Alabama’s board of education adopted the Common Core in 2010 in a 6-3 vote. Two of the Core’s biggest current proponents—Hunter and Elliott—were elected to the board the following year. In November 2011, after a flurry of concerned calls from parents, the board passed a resolution 6-3 reinforcing its support for the standards and rejecting federal involvement with curriculum.

“We’re all in agreement that a state should determine its own standards, and any kind of federal overreach would be unwelcome,” Hunter said. “The question is do we upset the apple cart because we think it might happen in the future… I’m really not trying to have a fight that’s bigger than me. I’m trying to maintain order for our teachers, our parents, and to stay on a good trajectory.” 

READ the transcript of interviews conducted for this article here

Image by Larry Miller.