Educators will meet on the steps of the State Capitol in the latest round of the ongoing fight over the Common Core Standards Initiative, a movement to adopt similar core academic standards in states across the country.
Lawmakers are considering a ban on the use of those standards in Alabama.
"No Child Left Behind was a massive federal intrusion that everybody agrees was a disaster, and Common Core is just an extension of that," said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, a Common Core opponent.
Common Core is a single set of academic standards, meant for adoption in multiple states. The standards began as a project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, who hoped to address the fact that academic standards varied widely from state to state, with some states falling behind others.
In 2010, Alabama's Board of Education adopted the state's College and Career Ready Standards, a new set of standards built on the Common Core. The move drew opposition from conservative activists, who decried it as a plot to hand control of Alabama's school policy over to the federal government.
That opposition has grown beyond the conservative grassroots to become a cause for the Republican Party. Last week, both the state GOP and the Republican National Committee released statements opposing Common Core.
Brewbaker, the Montgomery legislator, filed a bill to repeal Common Core earlier this year, but the bill never made it out of committee. Last week, a nearly identical bill filed by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, passed out of committee and is headed for a vote in the Senate.
Opposition to the bill has befuddled longtime educators, who say the new standards are a good solution to a real problem.
"The truth is that these standards are actually quite good," said Eric Mackey, the former Jacksonville superintendent who is now director of School Superintendents of Alabama. His organization is one of the groups rallying educators in the capital today.
Mackey said Common Core was the states' reaction to No Child Left Behind, which many teachers saw as a bad move for schools. America's schools have a tradition of teaching critical and creative thinking, Mackey said, and many teachers felt the test-focused regime of No Child Left Behind eroded that tradition.
"No Child Left Behind was the greatest overreach of the federal government into what is a state realm that we've ever seen in education," he said. "Common Core is a movement to go against that."
Mackey said the new standards require teachers to present students with more word-related math problems, stressing the ability to apply math on an everyday basis.
Under Common Core, he said, nonfiction is supposed to make up half the reading assigned to students. That provision has been controversial — with some saying that it lessens the role of literature in education — but Mackey noted that nonfiction texts could be assigned in classes other than English courses.
"One of the things we've seen with college-bound students is that they can read novels and poetry, but they can't open up a chemistry textbook and make sense of it," he said.
Mackey believes the new standards will encourage critical thinking and make students more confident of what they know.
"We're teaching students deduction skills," he said. "When you get on the Internet, you've got to know how to tell whether what you're reading is properly vetted."
Educators have spent a lot of time vetting claims in the debate over Common Core. In a committee meeting last week, Common Core opponents claimed the federal government was developing biometric technology to read students' facial expressions and collecting detailed info on what students' families ate at home. None of that is mentioned in the standards, and state education officials said they had no knowledge of such practices.
Brewbaker said the conspiracy theories are a distraction from the real issue.
"You don't have to go all the way to black helicopters to say that education is a power reserved to the states," he said.
Brewbaker said he doesn't think Common Core standards are as rigorous as they should be — particularly in math, where he says students don't get enough algebra. But even if they were better, he said, he would oppose them as a federal intrusion.
Yes, the standards were developed by the states, Brewbaker acknowledges. But the federal government, he says, pushed states to adopt them by making them a condition for winning federal Race to the Top grants.
For GOP leaders, the perceived federal role in Common Core seems to be its biggest drawback.
"Barack Obama's already expressed his desire to be emperor, or king, by controlling everything he can get his hands on," said Alabama GOP chairman Bill Armistead.
Alabama’s Race to the Top application had already been rejected in 2010 when the state Board of Education voted to adopt Common Core. Mackey said the federal enthusiasm for the standards "muddied the picture" and made many people see them as a federal project.
For some educators, however, they're a very local matter. Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar said the county has already invested a lot of time in preparing to implement the new standards.
Dyar said he'd be "very disappointed" if non-educators voted to ban the standards, setting back the school system's work. He said he expected to be among the superintendents rallying in Montgomery today.
"I think Common Core is outstanding," he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.