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What’s the Matter with Alabama?

How to squander a Republican majority.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By QUIN HILLYER
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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.”

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