Common Core And Cronyism In Alabama
June 2, 2014 by Sam Rolley
As voters in Alabama cast primary ballots on Tuesday, many will go to the polls with Common Core education standards in mind. For conservative voters in the State, where GOP lawmakers have stood on Common Core is particularly important.
In 2010, Republicans in Alabama secured supermajority status by riding a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm to victory. But even with the GOP in charge of both houses in the State Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction and the party being in charge of every State-level executive office, the Alabama school board adopted Common Core in a 7-2 vote in November of that year.
Also in 2010, Alabama’s newly-elected Governor Robert Bentley had sought to hold off on the State’s embrace of the standards. The new Governor agreed with the two dissenting school board members, Betty Peters and Stephanie Bell, who had argued that the standards fit the definition of Federal overreach and were largely untested.
The standards were rushed through, however, because outgoing Governor Bob Riley, acting in ex-officio capacity on the school board, voted for the standards on his way out of the Governor’s mansion.
At the time, there was some protestation from Alabama small government groups. But the Common Core plan, enacted in 2009 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, was still new and hadn’t been around long enough for Alabama voters to see the results that would later result from the passage of Common Core in other States.
Thanks in part to an influx of political spending by an organization called the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government late in the primary season, the standards- which have been making their way into Alabama course materials since 2012- have become a major issue in the most recent round of primaries. And the organization’s activism, coupled with ridiculous Common Core-related news from States further along in the implantation of the standards, has many Alabama conservatives wondering how any of the GOP lawmakers who cruised to victory in 2010 could support the education overhaul.
But the anti-Common Core foundation and its founder, former State Senator John Rice, have faced considerable pushback from the Alabama GOP establishment as well as the political left.
Rice’s Alabama Foundation for Limited Government ignited a political firestorm it recent months as it funneled nearly $1 million into the State’s primary races through the Stop Common Core PAC, which the former lawmaker also chairs. The funds largely went to Tea Party challengers in races against longstanding Alabama GOP lawmakers and to challenges against other Republicans who were elected as recently as 2010 but have since toed the establishment line, including backing Common Core.
The former lawmaker says he is driven to defeat Common Core because the $600 billion in Federal and State spending that will take place before it is fully implemented coupled with how rapidly the unproven standards have been put into place create a perfect storm of cronyism.
“All you have to do is look behind the curtain, and there will be the money.” Rice told Personal Liberty. “The retooling of education to fit Common Core standards is a $600 billion industry over the next five years.
“Many of the Republican establishment in Montgomery has not listened to the wishes of the State or national parties to throw Common Core down the drain,” he continued. “… Why did 34 other Senators now become irrelevant? Is it because [Senate President Pro Tem] Del Marsh said so, or is it just so much money on the table?”
The former lawmaker said that he is certain that the GOP establishment’s failure to quash Common Core is tied kickbacks related to State and Federal contracts related the implementation process.
Rice has faced unrelenting criticism from two of Alabama’s most powerful Republicans, Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (Auburn) and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (Anniston). In a television advertisement earlier this year —which was later the subject of a complaint filed with the Alabama Secretary of State by Marsh— Rice’s foundation accused the two of “pay to play” politics and backroom deals.
Stop Common Core provided a little over $130,000 to Hubbard’s primary challenger Sandy Toomer in March and April. On his website, Toomer advocates for a vote to repeal Common Core in Alabama and describes himself as “a Conservative Christian Republican who is Pro-Life, Pro-Family & Traditional Marriage, Pro-Business, Lower taxes, and Smaller Government.”
But Hubbard— who, despite Republican voters’ wishes, has failed to bring the education standards to a vote before the full State legislature— contends that Common Core is a non-issue and has accused Rice of being a closet liberal.
“They are desperate to hide the liberal sources funding their false attacks,” Hubbard’s campaign said in a written statement. “Instead of Stop Common Core PAC, it should be called Stop Conservative Candidates PAC, since it does the dirty work for cowardly liberals hiding behind its misleading name.”
The Alabama Speaker’s accusations stem from complaints from establishment politicians that Rice’s organizations are skirting laws in the State that ban PAC-to-PAC transfers. Furthermore, Hubbard alleges that the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government and Stop Common Core PAC are doing the bidding of a favorite boogeyman of the State GOP establishment: the Alabama Education Association (AEA).
Yellowhammer, a popular political blog in the State, linked Rice’s organizations to an out-of-State advertising group that the blog reported deals almost exclusively in liberal causes earlier in the year. The blog asserted that the AEA is using Rice and foundation to clandestinely influence political power in the State by propping up weak candidates in GOP primaries so that Democrats have a better chance of winning in the general election.
“Front groups are nothing new in Alabama politics, especially for the teachers’ union. In 2010, for instance, the AEA funneled big money into a political action committee named ‘True Republican PAC’ to influence the Alabama gubernatorial primary,” the blog stated.
In responding to his critics, Rice said he has a couple of key points on his side.
Hubbard is the subject of an ongoing ethics investigation tied to complaints that he failed to properly report business deals on his Statement of Economic Trust, used his office for personal economic gain and voted for legislation that directly benefitted business clients.
And Rice contends that, even if his detractors were correct and he were a liberal operative, his message would remain the same.
“They’re fleecing the State and it has got to stop,” Rice said.
As for the charge that he is doing the AEA’s dirty work, Rice questioned who the real enemy of conservatives is in Alabama: The AEA— which hasn’t taken a hard stance on Common Core—or the State’s GOP establishment—which has practically endorsed the standards.
“I don’t want one group richer because they figured out a way to fleece taxpayers,” he said. “For some reason the legislature can’t even find a way to give our teachers a pay raise this year, but Mike Hubbard gets $1 million extra in his Speaker’s budget—just for doing whatever he wants to.
“Here’s the interesting partnership that has come about,” he continued. “We Tea Partiers and small government-minded people now see that the teachers are actually being picked on by establishment Republicans in Montgomery, not the State GOP. And the insider Republicans are trying to vilify AEA as the bad guy so they can shrink benefits for the teachers so they’ve got more for themselves.”
As for whether he thinks Tuesday’s elections will be a referendum on the Alabama GOP establishment’s inaction on Common Core, Rice believes that his organization got started too late in the election season to be sure. Furthermore, members of Alabama’s mainstream media haven’t exactly painted him or his foundation in a positive light.
“They call me and ask me for a quote, then they say, ‘John Rice who operates the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government, who’s been accused by Mike Hubbard and others of being an AEA dark money operative,’” Rice said. “Stop right there and think: Who’s been accused by Mike Hubbard, who is under questioning of indictment and two people have already indicated him in felony cases… in grand jury… Now would that not be the fair way to put it?”
A north Alabama newspaper reporter–who asked to remain unnamed– said that the State’s journalists aren’t all that interested in Common Core, opining that lingering concerns about the education standards exist only in the minds of Tea Party gadflies.
“It went through years ago and everyone was fine with it then,” he said. “But now there are some Tea Party folks out there raising a stink about it. Mostly, I think, just because they think it’s a Federal takeover because of talking points.”
Nonetheless, candidates who have garnered the support of Rice’s organization seem convinced that voters care about Common Core— and the Alabama conservatives that helped so many Republicans to victory in 2010 want the standards repealed in the State.
Corey Harbison, the 27 year old mayor of Good Hope running to unseat incumbent Representative Mac Buttram (R-Cullman), is one of those candidates.
“Common Core is a huge deal for a lot of the voters I’ve talked to,” Harbison said. “And judging by some of the materials that were seeing used in other States, I don’t see how anyone calling themselves a conservative would want to subject school kids to that.”
Buttram became an Alabama lawmaker in 2010 during the Tea Party sweep—but has since drawn criticism from some conservatives for his support of Common Core and establishment positions.
Rice said that Buttram, like many of the Republicans who promised a pivot toward smaller government in 2010, did little more than move the State from Democrat cronyism to Republican cronyism.
And regardless of how Tuesday’s primaries turn out, according to Rice, his fight against Common Core will continue as long as it takes to defeat the standards.
“I’ve got seven grandchildren, I can’t leave them to Common Core,” he said.