Self-declared education reformers have had considerable success across the country over the past few decades, from charter school expansion and private school tuition vouchers to new limits on teachers' job protections. But perhaps nowhere have the triumphs marked a bigger political upheaval than in Alabama, where the new Republican supermajority is dominating the state teachers' organization that was long the epicenter of power.
Alabama Education Association chief Henry Mabry accuses Republicans of hurting public schools with changes to teacher tenure, tax breaks for private school tuition, and limits on AEA collecting dues through the state payroll system.
"There seems to be an unspoken agenda to change the public education system to where it's not even recognizable," Mabry said. He called it "right out of the playbook" of a national movement to eviscerate government in favor of private and for-profit enterprises.
GOP leaders frame their efforts as improving a broken system more concerned with public employees than with children. "It's not that we're punitive toward AEA," House Speaker Mike Hubbard said. "We're just doing the right thing by the taxpayers, and they don't like that."
Alabama's statehouse dynamic has turned on its head since Republicans won legislative supermajorities in 2010, giving them legislative control for the first time since Reconstruction. Soon after, longtime AEA leader Paul Hubbert, who spent more than four decades amassing a reputation as the state's most powerful lobbyist, retired and gave way to Mabry.
"For so long, AEA controlled everything, and they don't anymore," Hubbard said. "They're having a really hard time adjusting to that."
Hubbert, who still lives in Montgomery, said AEA was a predictable target for Republicans because it "had primarily supported Democrats."
The Alabama legislative battles haven't produced the kind of protests seen in Wisconsin after Republican Gov. Scott Walker gutted his state's public unions, but they underscore how quickly public policy can turn after watershed elections. They've also had considerable political ripple effects. The state Democratic Party, once dependent on AEA's organizational muscle, is reeling. Republicans must deal with the realities of a supermajority: Old two-party battles are sometimes reprised as internal party struggles. Both sides say those issues will figure prominently in the 2014 elections.
Immediately, the new GOP Legislature tried to block AEA from collecting money from its 100,000 or so members through the automatic deductions in the state payroll system. The law remains tied up in court, but it would change how AEA collects money, potentially cutting into the estimated $7 million to $8 million that Mabry says it spends each election cycle.
Republicans made it easier to fire teachers and blocked them from being paid during appeals. The party also wants the state to provide liability insurance for teachers — a key benefit teachers get from AEA. The state already provides similar insurance for non-education employees.
The biggest GOP victory came earlier this year when legislators passed the Alabama Accountability Act with provisions championed by school-choice advocates, including a private-school tuition voucher program for students from low-income households and tax breaks for private school tuition paid by families zoned for poorly performing public schools.
Those ideas have been implemented elsewhere. The tuition scholarship-voucher fund is modeled after a program Jeb Bush enacted as governor of Florida. Other provisions closely track model legislation offered by the American Legislative Exchanges Council, a consortium of conservative state legislators backed mostly by corporate contributions.
Mabry calls the tuition grants and tax breaks "once-in-a-lifetime goodies" for private schools and many parents who already send their children to them. Republicans estimate that the tax credits will divert about $50 million from public school appropriations, but AEA says the number will be much higher. Mabry blasts Hubbard's argument that supporting public schools is different from backing public school employees.
Hubbard spent more than a decade in the minority protesting Hubbert's influence. Hubbard and Senate GOP leader Del Marsh both refer to AEA as "the union," though AEA doesn't have collective bargaining rights and cannot strike. Statehouse lore holds that Hubbert could sit in the gallery and determine the outcome of budget amendments by showing lawmakers a thumbs-up or thumbs-down — though Hubbert disputes the account.
AEA was an unquestioned success in an otherwise unfriendly state for organized labor. National teachers' union officials recognize it as among the most influential state associations without collective bargaining power. Unlike several other Southern states that have multiple groups, AEA is the product of an integration-era merger of a white group and black group. Hubbert ran AEA for decades with Joe Reed, who is black, as his top deputy.
Both men were longtime executive officers of the state Democratic Party. Hubbert won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1990 but lost the general election. AEA usually took the lead on recruiting candidates, often choosing education employees and administrators. Republicans lambasted the "double dipping" because the officeholders got two state paychecks, and some AEA-backed Democrats were convicted of fraud after a federal investigation found they got paychecks and contracts from state two-year colleges without doing the work.
An enduring example of AEA's old power is the fact that Alabama passes two budgets annually: one for education and the General Fund budget for everything else. Earmarks direct the overwhelming majority of state tax revenues to the education budget. In a state where anti-tax sentiment has always been strong, AEA saw to it that public schools — and their employees — got most of the pie.
Hubbert and Mabry say that's the way the electorate wants it. They attribute Republicans' 2010 sweep to a national election centered on President Barack Obama and the economy, not on GOP education policy.
AEA has begun recruiting candidates for 2014 on both sides of the aisle, Mabry said. New district lines give Republicans a decided advantage, particularly in the few remaining district represented by white Democrats. Mabry argued that Republican voters are sympathetic to AEA's positions, particularly on vouchers and tax credits. He noted that some Republicans in Indiana and Ohio were ousted in 2012 after a similar approach.
Hubbard and Marsh said they can win the "school choice" argument on merit. Hubbard's old nemesis, meanwhile, gives him reason not to worry anytime soon. The bottom line, according to Hubbert, is that AEA's philosophy and Republican priorities don't match. "AEA will change with the times, I'm sure," Hubbert said. "But will it be a major player inside the Republican Party? I doubt it."