By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
The fight over what have become known as the Common Core educational standards has made its way into State House this legislative session, and it has now broken down to lawmakers debating which books are and are not appropriate as examples of what to use in Alabama schools.
In addition, some legislators are apparently learning new things from the curriculum already.
Those on the far right, self-identified Tea Party members, such as Wetumpka Tea Party Founder Becky Gerritson, and Tea Party favorites in the legislature, such as Senator Scott Beason, have begun public criticism of specific works of literature and their contents under the new Alabama educational standards.
The educational guidelines, also known as the College and Career Ready Standards, were adopted by the Alabama State Board of Education several years ago, and have been implemented since. The standards, which cover only mathematics and English, have drawn fierce opposition since they gained public attention. Senator Beason, R-Gardendale, for example, labeled them as “untested” standards that amount to a”top-down, federal experiment” on Alabama’s public school children.
Statewide school officials completely disagree with that characterization of the Common Core.
“There’s no indoctrination. There is no conspiracy,” State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice has said.
“We are teaching math. We are teaching kids to read and write. It just doesn’t make any sense for something that is simply a political issue. It has nothing to do with academics.”
Beason has introduced legislation that would allow local school boards to opt out, revise, or adopt the standards at their discretion.
Though it has more than a dozen cosponsors in the Senate, it is unlikely that the bill will pass given significant opposition from some legislators both Democrat and Republican.
Representatives of the Alabama Association of Schools Boards has said his legislation, an earlier version of which was a complete repeal bill, would be a “giant leap in the wrong direction.”
Bill Canary of the Business Council of Alabama said the bill would be “a significant usurpation of power by the Legislature,” reiterating that education policy is a local – not state – issue.
“This is a political application at the expense of students and our future workforce. As we have said before, continued attempts by the Legislature to assume control of this issue, relegated by law to the State Board of Education, is the very definition of government overreach.”
Senator Beason and Wetumpka Tea Party Founder Becky Gerritson have both mentioned multiple works of literature found in an appendix to the Common Core standard guidelines as examples of acceptable educational materials that they find inappropriate for the age groups for which they are proscribed.
Gerritson gained statewide attention when she quoted passages from Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, a novel which boldly confronts the subjects of incestuous rape and race relations. After reading a particularly anatomically-charged sentence, Gerritson reached the f-word, at which point Democratic Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures asked that she stop, with Senator Dick Brewbaker, the chair of the committee and fellow Common Core opponent even acknowledging she had crossed the line.
It should be noted that Toni Morrison has been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her work in fiction. She taught at Princeton University until her retirement a few years ago, and she was the last American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Among other works objected to include Hiroshima by John Hersey, which depicts the bombing of Japan during WWII, with Beason saying that its Japanese point of view leads to a “lack of balance that undermines American values.”
Another, and perhaps the most intriguing “inappropriate” work being cited is Arthur Miller’s award winning play The Crucible, an obvious metaphor for the McCarthyism of the Red Scare as shown through the Salem Witch Trials.
Senator Beason says he opposes inclusion of The Crucible because “McCarthy was right.”
When asked about his position on the former Senator and the legitimacy of his Red Scare claims, and on his colleague’s condemnation, Alabama Senator Bryan Taylor said on Twitter, “I guess I’ll have to get the book, study up on him, and see if its credible.” (This was in reference to a recently published new book on McCarthy.)
So although all of the Yellowhammer state’s lawmakers may not yet accept the message behind The Crucible, or its metaphors about 20th century history, or even the Common Core standards as a whole, at least the standards are making those state legislators who don’t know about such important events in American history “get the book” and “study up.”
To be clear, Senator Joseph McCarthy was a Republican member of the US Congress from 1947 until 1957, and became famous for his passionate “witch hunt” of supposed Communist spies in the United States government, particularly in the Department of the Army. He infamously changed the number of Communists he claimed were in the government frequently, using 205 at rally speeches, but using 59 in the Congressional record.
In 1954, the United States Senate, in a special session called for the purposed, officially condemned McCarthy for his actions, with all Democrats and half of Republicans voting for the measure. He died of acute hepatitis and alcohol-related illnesses in 1957.
“There is no academic freedom where a Communist is concerned,” McCarthy once said. “He has no freedom of thought nor freedom of expression.”