How Alabama is on the verge of breaking one of the nation’s most powerful teachers’ unions

Jeff Poor | Media Reporter

For much of the last four decades, the Alabama Education Association has risen to become one of the most powerful teachers’ unions in the country. As odd as it may seem in a dark red state, over the years long-time AEA executive director Paul Hubbert, oftentimes described as the “shadow governor” of Alabama, has earned his union the distinction of being one of the most politically involved organizations of its type in the country.

Hubbert and the AEA won one of their first major battles in 1971, when they were able to keep then-Democratic Gov. George Wallace from directing funds meant for education and diverting them to the state retirement system. Since that victory, Hubbert has been able to wield his power and influence in ways that are almost unfathomable to an outsider.

Under Hubbert, the teachers’ union head has employed such tactics as installing his own un-elected assistant in state legislature budget committee hearings to be called upon by the committee chairman and essentially re-writing the state’s budget with little or no regard for what the governor had submitted to the state legislature.

Hubbert himself has also played a visible role. Over the years, the teachers’ union head could be seen standing in the balconies of the Democratic-controlled legislature, giving hand signals to members of both chambers on which way to vote.

But the beginning of the end of the AEA’s reign of power came with the 2010 state office elections. The Republican Party took control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in 136 years. And shortly thereafter — at age 76, Hubbert retired as the AEA head and former Alabama State Finance Director Henry Mabry took them helm.

The newly elected Republican legislature and Republican Gov. Robert Bentley enacted measures to prohibit public employees from having dues for political activities paid through payroll draft. That measure is much like what Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and that state’s Republican-led legislature pushed in 2011.

But perhaps the biggest blow to the AEA came last week when the state legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, which made school choice, private or another public school, possible for the family of a student, if he or she is attending a failing school.

That legislation will provide income tax credits for families with students in a failing public school to attend a non-failing public or private school. It will also expand tax credits to individuals or businesses who donate scholarship money to non-failing schools.

Democratic State Rep. Mary Moore of Birmingham implied that the bill had a racial element. “Welcome to the new confederacy where a bunch of white men are now going to take over black schools,” Moore said according to a report last week from AL.com’s Kim Chandler.

The bill’s passage was heralded by conservatives and received national attention, with the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation celebrating it as “historic.”

Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, the mastermind behind the legislation, sees the court ruling and other efforts to thwart its passage as the teachers’ union’s last gasp.

“They look at this as an issue that’s a do-or-die issue thing,” Marsh told The Daily Caller. “They go to do all they can to defeat it. It’s unfortunate. But you know the AEA works for their union. They don’t work for the children or the parents of this state. We do. And this legislation was designed from day one to give those parents and children of those failing systems a shot. And that’s what it’s about.”

AL.com politics writer Charles Dean described it as “perhaps the single greatest defeat for the AEA in the last 44 years” for the once all-powerful entity.

The union’s relatively new head Henry Mabry, with just two years on the job, was dumbfounded.

“We were railroaded. We were lied to. Lawmakers lied to us. The Senate pro tem lied to us. … The governor lied to us,” Mabry told Charles Dean of The Birmingham (Ala.) News last week. Mabry’s own children attend private schools.

On Wednesday, the bill hit a speed bump as Democratic Montgomery (Ala.) Circuit Court Judge Charles Price temporarily blocked Gov. Bentley from signing the bill into law until questions are answered as to whether or not the tactics in passing the legislation had violated the Open Meetings Act.

However, Price’s ruling is expected to be struck down by the state’s higher courts, which are all controlled by Republicans, including the Alabama Supreme Court.

“We expected it,” Marsh said. “If you look at Judge Price’s history and his affiliation with just a liberal lean, I think it’s unfortunate because I think it’s pretty unprecedented in the judicial branch to involve itself in the legislative process. It’s one thing if the bill had been signed, but right now it’s a process.”

Alabama has traditionally struggled with its ranking among others states while teachers’ union’s power was at it heights under Hubbert. But in recent years, it has shown signs of improvement.

Nonetheless, the move according to Marsh is a step in the right direction since it takes the focus off “special interests.”

“It was a proud day for me because what you saw — this legislation truly was constructed, drawn by the legislature,” Marsh said. “I mean, if you look out there, no special interests were involved in this — AEA didn’t have a stake in it. Superintendents didn’t, the school boards didn’t. This is truly pure legislation — the legislature talked with members throughout the legislature to come up with something that would have the votes to get passed. I think it’s a great piece of legislation, and I think it’s a turning point in Alabama. And I truly pray the Supreme Court does the right thing and sends it on to the governor and lets him sign this, and let’s move forward.”

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