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By Bill Britt
MONTGOMERY—Last week, Alabama received a visit from one of the country’s leading voices on education reform issues. Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues as the Will Skillman fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation. Burke focuses on two critical areas of education policy: Reducing the federal role in education and empowering families with school choice, according to the Heritage Foundation.
The Alabama Political Reporter had an opportunity to speak with Ms. Burke during her visit to our state. The topic of our conversation centered on the federal program known as Common Core State Standards. The repeal of Common Core has been the focus of the conservative wing of the Alabama Republican Party for months. Surprisingly, the rejection of the federally-mandated program has received a lukewarm reception from many republican legislators. The effort to repeal the program actually died in Senate committee earlier in the session for lack of republican support. But, last week saw new life breathed into the effort by Senator Scott Beason (R-Gardendale). A repeal measure passed out of Senate committee with the help of Senator Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery).
We asked Lindsey Burke to share with us some of her thoughts on the issue.
“The biggest concern right now, …is that this is perhaps the most significant federal overreach into education we have ever seen,” said Burke. She says that a growing number of groups, parent activists, teachers, and school board members are, “extremely concerned and rightly, so,” of what they see as a federalization of class curriculum.
“There are people that will say that this isn’t Federal, but we could talk all day long about the way in which the [Obama] administration has heavily incentivised the adoption of National standards and tests, the adoption of Common Core,” said Burke.
This is the very thing that has Alabama conservatives concerned. Far from being conspiratorial about “big government takeovers,” they see this as an intrusion into the very fabric of the social and intellectual life of the state’s children.
Burke sees what the government is doing as a carrot-and-stick approach to gain control over individual state’s classrooms.
Burke said, “Offering ‘strings attached’ waivers to states who agree to adopt Common Core, who agree affectively to Nationalize the content that is taught in schools is not the way to improve education by any stretch of the imagination.”
According to Burke, the Obama administration has put “$4.35 billion dollars on the line,” to convince states to adopt Common Core. Alabama was one of the first states to apply for the federal funds under the “Race to the Top” program. However, the state’s request was rejected because it had not fully implemented Common Core standards.
“Early on, you had the National Governors’ Association, the counsel of the Chief State’s Officers were pushing this..,” said Burke. “It may have at one point been a voluntary effort, but that one point was a microsecond.”
Conservatives in Alabama believe, like Burke, that whatever the “Federal Government funds, it ultimately controls.”
Many rank-and-file conservatives are shocked to find that they are having to fight their fellow Republicans over state sovereignty on education. So concerned was ALGOP Chairman Bill Armistead that he, along with National Committeewoman Vicki Drummond and Committeeman Paul Reynolds, worked to convince the RNC to pass a resolution rejecting the Common Core State Standards.
“The resolution addresses the overreach of the federal government in dictating our school curriculum,” Armistead said.
The resolution says, in part, the RNC, “…rejects this Common Core State Standards which creates and fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.”
In Alabama, the fight over Common Core seems to be defining the two factions of the Republican Party. On one side, there is the “Corporate Republicans,” centered around the BCA (Business Council of Alabama) and on the other side are the “Social Conservatives” who seem to rely on men like Chairman Armistead and Rev. John Killian to protect the state from federal overreach.
So far this session, it appears that the Alabama House of Representatives has followed the will of the BCA while the Senate has been more alined with the more conservative wing. When asked why she thought groups like BCA would favor Common Core, Burke said, “It sounds good right? Why don’t we want all children learning the same thing? Don’t you want the kids to have high standards?” She says this is a common refrain by many in the business sector.
She adds, “You’ll hear things thrown around like, ‘We’re in a global economy,’ so all of these talking points sound very nice and benign. But, when we dig down a little deeper, and we think about how we would truly set assessments and standards and improve educational outcome…” she says, the story become much more complicated.
Burke says she would, “Love to see the business community setting standards that they know would define the skills that students need to become successful in careers down the road.” But that for now what we have “are two National organizations that set these standards, bankrolled in part by the administration.”
This again is what alarms conservatives in Alabama. They do not want the fate and future of their children in the hands of a remote federal power.
Burke says, “The best thing we could possibly do is decentralize standard setting, have competition among states/school districts for what is taught in their schools.” She also believes that parents should be offered, “robust choice options that actually give the parents the chance to choose a curriculum that meets their child’s unique learning needs.”
The fight over Common Core is far from over as the Republican Supermajority is split in its ideology and its loyalties. One beholden to business special interests and the other waring to fend off the “overreach of the federal government in dictating our school curriculum,” as stated by Party Chairman Bill Armistead.