The Magazine

What’s the Matter with Alabama?

How to squander a Republican majority.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By QUIN HILLYER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Wise old hands know that almost no political victory is permanent. Unfortunately, reformers in Alabama are relearning that lesson. 

Photo of Robert Bentley

Charter schools, no. Big nameplates, sure.

AP / Montgomery Advertiser / Mickey Welsh

State election results in Alabama in 2010 and Louisiana in 2011 were remarkably alike: Republicans gained almost all statewide offices and strong control of both legislative chambers. Yet whereas Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal pushed through some of the nation’s boldest educational choice measures and other major school reforms, Alabama failed again this spring to pass legislation allowing even a single charter school in the state. Most observers were stunned; the Alabama Education Association (AEA), one of the most destructive unions in the country, started taking bows for a rapid comeback from what briefly seemed like political oblivion.

A powerful union won’t stay down long unless a strong governor, like Jindal, keeps a reformist agenda front and center. Lack of gubernatorial leadership, as in Alabama, can lead to a major fiasco. This is especially true when the union finds unlikely allies to carry its water.

Most of the state’s county school superintendents, usually at odds with the union, and most local school boards, sometimes at odds with the AEA, along with the statewide school superintendent, appointed by a non-union-friendly state board, all came out vociferously against charters. So did the state’s Christian Coalition, which bizarrely said it feared a secret homosexual agenda and a secret Muslim agenda. The local superintendents, many of them elected countywide in districts far larger than the average state house district, carried especially strong political weight with Republican lawmakers.

Finally, Governor Robert Bentley, elected with the indirect help of the AEA (which spent some $3 million attacking his Republican primary opponent), provided only the most tepid of support for charters.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Until the administration of Governor Bob Riley (2003-2011), which made numerous strides on school reforms, Alabama had a well-earned reputation as an education backwater. The AEA long was the state’s biggest power, so misguided and so strong that it even opposed—and for two years successfully blocked—criminal background checks for school personnel. Lavishly funded through automatic withholding from school-employee paychecks, the AEA in turn lavishly financed the campaigns of not just the usually dominant Democratic party but of some elected Republicans as well.

In 2010, though, term-limited Riley and state Rep. Mike Hubbard, the state Republican chairman, masterminded a hugely successful electoral effort that resulted in victories (or party-switches to the GOP) in 66 of 105 House districts (up from 43) and 22 of 35 Senate seats (up from just 15). They then took advantage of an anomaly in Alabama law providing for newly elected legislators to take office immediately, even while statewide officials await a January inauguration. Riley called a special “ethics” session in which the new legislature, with Hubbard as the new speaker, set far lower limits on meals and other freebies from lobbyists like AEA’s, closed campaign-finance loopholes exploited by the AEA, and, most important, made union dues payments voluntary rather than through automatic withholding from paychecks.

“The AEA fought tooth-and-toenail against these bills,” said Gary Palmer, president of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute think tank, but the union was powerless to slow down the train. When, in the regular spring session under the new governor, the legislature also dramatically reformed the state-employee pension program, the rout of AEA seemed complete.

Perhaps that led to overconfidence. With 41 other states already boasting charter schools, and with the AEA now seen as relatively toothless, charters seemed a cinch to pass. Legislative leaders sponsored meetings with charter experts from around the country, traveled to Memphis to view successful charters firsthand, and worked with legal counsel to develop easily digestible legislation allowing charters only in under-performing school districts. What they didn’t do, apparently, was lay the political groundwork with the public or with any part of the education establishment.

“I really was shocked at the enormous amount of pushback and -opposition from the school superintendents, even those who didn’t have underperforming schools in their districts,” Hubbard told me in a recent interview. “They had always asked us to help them escape red tape, and we offered some real help with that as part of our package, yet they were willing to kill that in order to kill charter schools.”

One problem, Senate education committee chairman Dick Brewbaker explained, was that the legislation created an appointed state board that could override local officials and force the allowance of charters where perceived necessary—which he said made the superintendents and local school boards “incredibly suspicious .  .  . especially where a lot of money was on the table.”

With a spate of anti-charter TV ads run statewide by a shadowy group widely suspected to be an AEA front, and with very little public politicking in favor of charters, nervous House members felt far more pressure from charter opponents than from supporters. As the legislative session wore on, they repeatedly tweaked their bill in ways ever more restrictive of real school choice. By the time the bill passed committee, it limited charters to no more than 20 statewide before 2017—and time in the legislative session was growing short. With the Senate thought to be a tougher road anyway, Brewbaker’s committee then took up the challenge without waiting for full House action—and once opponents sliced and diced the bill there and on the Senate floor, it became utterly toothless. Under its provisions, charters in any locality could be created only if every member of the county’s legislative delegation approved. As Republican state senator Trip Pittman loudly complained about this single-member veto provision (before voting for the bill anyway), “There ain’t no way you’ll ever have a charter school in this bill.”

For most of these proceedings, Governor Bentley was nowhere to be found.

“The governor didn’t expend a lot of political capital,” Brewbaker said. “He did act in good faith; toward the end of the debate he did try to call some of the senators in and ask them to invoke cloture. But there wasn’t a lot of public drumbeating from the governor’s office in favor of charter schools. .  .  . One thing about Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, he had made school choice one of the things he campaigned on, talked about, and really planted his flag over. But Bentley had his plate full with a real budget crunch and with disaster relief from the tornadoes” of 2011.

House charter supporters were disgusted with the Senate effort, and Brewbaker, the nominal author of the Senate bill and a strong voucher proponent, told the House committee his feelings certainly wouldn’t be hurt if the significantly weakened version didn’t pass. “It wasn’t worth our time to send the governor a meaningless bill,” Hubbard later explained—and the House refused even to vote on it, thus killing the whole effort for this year’s session, which ended in May.

Brewbaker and Hubbard vow to use the rest of this year to do the political groundwork left undone last year, reassuring superintendents and school boards, in hopes of passing a strong charter law in next year’s session. “We’ve got a plan we’re working on to get some minds changed,” Hubbard said.

The AEA, however, is now emboldened, and it surely will work just as hard to scotch those efforts, through ever more ingenious means. Unless Governor Bentley makes school choice a priority, the AEA’s teeth and toenails might prove to be depressingly effective weapons.

Quin Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor at the American Spectator.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers