- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Sen. Dick Brewbaker was one of the first Alabama politicians to sound an alarm against the Common Core State Standards. These days, he has some misgivings.

“What I do regret is that it has morphed from an education issue into something else,” said Brewbaker, a Republican from Montgomery. “I don’t see how you get back to the point where you have some kind of rational discussion.”

Few Alabamians had even heard of the Common Core, a multi-state set of academic standards designed to put schools across the country on the same page academically, when Brewbaker first came out against them in 2010.

But as the June 3 primary elections approach, Common Core has emerged as the one issue that every Republican candidate must address. Anti-Core activists, who see the new school standards as a federal power grab, are mounting electoral challenges to key GOP incumbents. Sitting Republican lawmakers face the scorn of tea partiers for supporting Common Core, or simply for appearing to be on the fence about the issue. And a secretive group has funneled $700,000 into Stop Common Core PAC, suddenly vaulting the newly-formed political action committee into the ranks of Montgomery’s top political spenders.

It’s a controversy tailor-made for midterm elections. A University of Connecticut poll has found that despite years of debate, three Americans out of five say they’ve never heard of Common Core. A Gallup poll released in April found that parents of school kids were more likely to support the standards than oppose them, though 37 percent were unaware Common Core existed.

The June 3 primaries, however, won’t be decided by just any random sampling of people. Midterm elections, without a presidential race at the top of the ballot, typically don’t inspire high turnout. And midterm primaries bring only the most hard-core voters, the kind who fret about the state of their party’s soul.

“For conservatives, this is a symbolic issue, like Obamacare,” said University of South Alabama political science professor Sam Fisher. “It becomes a cudgel that these groups can use to beat up on each other and advance their agenda.”

There was a time when activists found Common Core, like every set of academic standards that preceded it, about as exciting as a warm glass of milk.

“There was almost no media coverage of Common Core in 2009,” said Rick Hess, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Then, in 2011, people felt like it came out of the blue.”

In 2009, officials from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched a plan to create a single set of K-12 academic standards in core subjects - reading and math - that could be used in multiple states.

Initially, dozens of states lined up behind Common Core with little controversy.

Enter Barack Obama. The new president created Race to the Top, an incentive program that tied federal education grants to the adoption of policies favored by Washington. Adoption of Common Core gave states a boost in the competition for Race to the Top money.

For members of the then-new tea party movement, the nudge from Obama forever changed the perception of the Common Core. Instead of an effort by governors, it was now a federal effort to make every state alike.

“Some of the opposition is about the standards themselves, and some of it is culture war stuff,” Hess said. “But a lot of it plays out against a background of anxiety about the federal government, and what it can do.”

Common Core has divided Alabama’s Republican supermajority for almost as long as there was a supermajority.

Story Continues →