The Magazine

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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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.

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