March 14, 2013 7:12 pm

Corporate Education Storm of Reform Hits Alabama

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By Larry Lee

For the most part, the winds of corporate education reform sweeping over the country in the last decade bypassed Alabama.

That is until the elections of 2010 put Republican legislators in firm control of both the House and Senate.  In addition, a GOP governor and Lt. governor were elected.

Then in 2011, like a storm blowing in from the gulf, the GOP majority took a run at bringing charter schools to the state.  And like so many “ed reform” efforts, this one was rooted much more deeply in trying to atone for past political defeats than in trying to truly advance the cause of better education for school kids.

For years, the Alabama Education Association, under the leadership of Dr. Paul Hubbert, was THE player in state politics.  Hubbert’s grassroots organization, fueled by substantial PAC contributions from teachers and support personnel, swayed legislative races time after time.

And in the 2010 cycle, they played a huge role in the final outcome of the Republican primary for governor.  The early favorite on the GOP side was former two-year college system chancellor Bradley Byrne.  From the get-go, Byrne singled out AEA as public enemy no. one.

A one-time state senator and state school board member, Byrne started his political career as a Democrat who was supported by AEA.  But along the way this marriage hit the rocks and Byrne, who lives in rock-solid Republican territory in southwest Alabama, switched parties and decided that it would be OK to bite the hand that once fed him.

The GOP primary also included Tim James, son of former governor Fob James, and Dr. Robert Bentley, a physician from Tuscaloosa and two-term state house member.  Longtime political watchers considered the chances of either James or Bentley about as likely as a high school team winning the Super Bowl.

And in all probability they would’ve been right had Byrne not insisted on stirring Hubbert and AEA’s hornet’s nest.  Hubbert, who was getting ready to retire after 40+ years at the helm of AEA, did not intend to roll over and play dead under the constant attacks of Byrne.

Bentley edged into a runoff with Byrne by less than 500 votes and then it was “game on” for AEA.  They left no stone unturned in their effort to help Bentley defeat Byrne.  The July runoff saw Bentley easily beat Byrne, 56-44.  Bentley then defeated Democrat Ron Sparks 58-42 in November.

At the same time Bentley was claiming the governor’s office, the GOP swept to victory in enough legislative races to claim control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

The GOP wasted little time in retaliating against AEA.  (Byrne had been the favorite of the Republican power structure, including incumbent governor Bob Riley and his close ally, soon-to-be-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard.)

Riley called a special session before he left office with the primary purpose being to stop AEA from having dues collected from member’s pay checks by the state.  This was quickly accomplished.  (In Alabama, legislators take office immediately upon election, while constitutional officers don’t get seated until January.  So in this case, a lame duck governor called a special session which included a large number of members who had never served before.)

As the new governor and new legislature took control, Hubbert retired and was replaced by Dr. Henry Mabry, who had hardly taken a deep breath before he was facing a legislative battle over charter schools, which Alabama doesn’t have.

After a lot of energy and resources were spent by both sides, the charter school issue faded into the sunset.  The opposition of school superintendents across the state was a major part why the charter legislation crashed and burned.

But the charter issued brought new “players” to Alabama, Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst group being the most prominent.  At one point StudentsFirst had six lobbyists registered in the state, causing many to wonder when Michelle Rhee got so concerned about Alabama children.  The fact that the new governor’s education policy lady is a former Rhee employee may have figured into the equation.

Prior to the current legislative session, Governor Bentley stated that he would not push charters as he’d done in 2012.

However, as it has turned out, truthfulness regarding education issues is not one of the governor’s strong points.

Recently the House and Senate passed a bill to allow tax credits for children to attend private schools, provided they are zoned for a “failing” school.  But the process used to pass the bill, as well as its content, has been a bonanza for editorial writers from Huntsville to Mobile.

The House and Senate both passed a somewhat benign bill giving local school systems additional flexibility in dealing with regulations.  This was supported by Dr. Tommy Bice, state superintendent of education.  However, since the bill was amended in one body, it had to go to conference committee.

This is when things really got interesting.  The conference committee consisted of two Republican House members and one Democrat; and two Republican Senators and one Democrat.  The Republicans moved to another room, leaving the Democrats behind and after the passage of considerable time emerged with a bill that went into committee as 7-8 pages and came out as 27-28.

The bill that went to committee had no mention of tax credits, the one that came out did.  In fact, the bill came out of committee with a new name.

The new bill was quickly rammed through both the House and Senate, with many members later admitting that they had not read what they were voting on.  (But in their defense, how can you read a bill that no one has seen except whoever drafted it prior to the conference committee shenanigans.)

Word of what the Republican majority had engineered quickly spread throughout the education community.  The state superintendent immediately withdrew his support, as did the school board association.

And bizarre as it may seem, the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Del Marsh, boasted that he had worked hard to make sure the state superintendent and other education “special interests” did not know what was taking place because they would’ve been in opposition to it.

Shortly thereafter AEA filed suit in Montgomery circuit court that the legislature had violated a number of their own rules and the court ruled that the bill could not be transmitted to the governor for his signature until everything was sorted out.

Charges have flown back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.  Republicans have asked the state supreme court (where all nine members are GOP) to rule that the circuit court is overstepping its authority.  Democrats have charged that the bill that came out of committee was different than the one actually voted on.  In fact, a Republican house member has stated that language he put in the bill and was in it when it came from conference, was not in the final version that was passed.

And the $64 million question is: what will the legislation cost?  No one knows and estimates are anywhere from $50 million to more than $300 million.  These are funds that would come from an already less-than robust special education trust fund.  The chairmen of both the house and senate education finance committees have indicated that they will stall budget action until someone can give them some meaningful numbers.

But right on cue, within less than an hour after the bill was voted on, Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst sent out a news release praising it to high heaven.

In a nutshell, it’s a very royal mess.  And though perhaps late to the dance, the Alabama legislature is proving once again what we’ve seen all across the county–that school kids make a very poor rope in a political tug-of-war.

Larry Lee is an NPE Director. He is retired and lives in Montgomery, AL.   His last position before retiring was Director of the Center for Rural Alabama where he coordinated an extensive study of high-performing, high-poverty rural schools.  The result was the publication, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools.  He frequently writes about education issues for Alabama newspapers.

He is co-author of Beyond the Interstate: The Crisis in Rural Alabama and Crossroads and Connections: Strategies for Rural Alabama.

He is chairman of the advisory board of HIPPY Alabama, an early childhood learning program.  Lee is a graduate of Auburn University.