Over objections from several education and business organizations, the Alabama Senate moved to repeal the use of all Common Core standards in state schools last week — sending the quickly and controversially passed bill to the House for deliberation.
Introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, SB 119 would repeal the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards tied to Common Core by the 2021-2022 school year if it is successfully passed in the House and signed by Gov. Kay Ivey.
As originally written, the bill would have immediately repealed Common Core and reverted back to academic standards from the early 2000s. There were also concerns some of the original wording would have precluded Alabama from certain national assessments like the ACT.
After many groups expressed concern about those and other “unintended consequences,” the Senate tacked on an amendment the day of the vote that gives the Alabama State Board of Education a year to develop new standards, although legislators would have to approve them.
Until then, the current standards — Common Core and all — would remain in place.
“We have used the Common Core in Alabama for nearly a decade, and while we do have some blue-ribbon schools, the vast majority are severely behind,” Marsh said. “We are still ranked 46th and 49th in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is unacceptable, and it is time to try something new.”
Marsh claims to have worked with the education community, but most organizations and agencies were caught off guard when he announced his effort on social media last Tuesday. That includes the Alabama State Department of Education and the Alabama Association of School Boards, (AASB) both of which have opposed SB 119.
Within two days and without a public hearing, the bill passed through committee and was approved by the full Senate. Both the House and Senate are on spring break this week, but the bill is expected to be a primary focus in the House when legislators return to Montgomery.
Marsh has said he plans to meet with education leaders during the break.
While the amendment alleviated some fears, many groups are still concerned with how upending current academic standards will impact schools. Others argue the bill would strip authority from the state school board by requiring the Legislature to approve future changes.
AASB Executive Director Sally Smith said her organization and school boards across the state remain opposed to the bill. Speaking to Lagniappe last week, she said: “This is still a bad bill; the amendment just made it a little less bad.”
“It’s still problematic, and we hope it will not pass the House,” Smith said. “It’s disruptive to the processes we already have in place, and it’s still an overreach.”
Common Core opponents say Alabama should be in charge of developing its standards, not the federal government. But while the current standards draw on elements of Common Core, they were developed by Alabama teachers and approved by the state’s elected school board.
The belief that Common Core is an edict from the federal government started when Arne Duncan, then-secretary of education under President Barack Obama, encouraged the adoption of the standards as part of a grant program — one from which Alabama never received any funding.
The standards were created by the National Governors Association in 2008 as a way to ensure students in different states were learning at the same pace and competing at the same level. All but seven U.S. states have since incorporated Common Core into their academic standards.
For Alabama, adopting Common Core meant adopting more-rigorous academic standards, different from the curriculum that is actually taught in the classroom. Smith said it’s not uncommon for people to conflate the two.
“Standards are things like what grade level multiplication tables are taught at, but how you teach and what materials you use are decisions made by local communities,” Smith said. “We have always used some type of national reference to make sure our students are competitive.”
Local and statewide business organizations have echoed similar concerns about Marsh’s effort.
Last week, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce joined others across Alabama in opposition to SB 119. Kellie Hope, vice president of community and governmental affairs with the chamber, said academic standards and the perception of students can impact economic development.
“We’re the leading economic development agency in this area, and what we find over and over again is that a strong and prepared workforce is one of those key competitive factors,” Hope said. “We have to make sure there are high standards so potential employers looking to locate here know they’re going to have a qualified workforce.”
Mobile County School Board President Don Stringfellow and MCPSS Superintendent Chresal Threadgill have also raised concerns. Stringfellow said a repeal would “cause a lot of chaos,” and Threadgill has joined other Alabama superintendents in opposition.
“Basically those are just rigorous standards that also include around 26 of Alabama’s own standards,” Theadgill said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to change them. I don’t think it will pass through the House, but you never know.”
If things in the House go anything like they did in the Senate, though, the bill should pass with ease. The Senate vote fell along party lines and passed despite Democrats’ attempt at a filibuster.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, questioned the timing of Marsh’s efforts.
Though he hasn’t declared, Marsh is widely expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2020, and repealing Common Core has long been a goal of many conservative Republican political groups.
Marsh has also helped kill similar efforts to repeal Common Core in Alabama, but he says his support of the standards and the state school board’s ability to keep it in place shifted because statewide test scores have remained low even after seven years using the standards.
Addressing the Senate, Figures accused Marsh of playing politics with “the lives of our children.”
“Years ago, I was told by a very seasoned politician that one way to get name recognition, if you don’t have it, is to come up with something very controversial,” Figures said. “If you want to run for office, run for office, but don’t do it on the backs of somebody else.”
Marsh has pushed back against any suggestion that his timing is politically motivated.
“We don’t want disruption in education, but we’re convinced we’ve got to go in another direction,” Marsh said. “It’s imperative we take this step and that people outside the state see us take this step. I’m committed to doing whatever we can to improve education in Alabama.”
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