By Grant Hallmark
Alabama Political Reporter
Henry Mabry, the man expected to replace Paul Hubbert as the executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association (AEA), has a tall task ahead of him. Although he is optimistic about his new position and the future of the AEA, the organization is clearly at a crossroads.
Up to 2010, the AEA was the most politically influential organization in the state. Alabama was up to this point a one-party state under the Alabama Democratic Party (ADP). The AEA had an explicitly close relationship with the ADP; donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates was not uncommon. This is of course not surprising, given the organization’s and the party’s shared interests. Although it seemed logical 10 or 20 or 30 years ago for the educators union to hitch their wagon to the democratic star, one has to recalculate where that star is going every now and then.
The outcome of the 2010 elections was devastating for both the ADP and the AEA. While it was to be expected that the Republican Party would make significant gains in the midterms, it was not expected that the state would fully switch parties. Alabama went from being a democratic one-party state to a republican one-party state.
This has greatly diminished AEA’s political capital in the legislature and the Governor’s office. Where the AEA was once consulted as part of the public infrastructure, now the union arguably doesn’t have a seat at the table. This could be blamed on bad blood left over from the past quarter century of being political adversaries. However, there is something a bit more substantive in the works within the state government.
There is a shift beginning in Governor Bentley’s office toward reforming the state’s public education system. The hiring of Emily Schultz as the new director of education policy is the sign of this approaching reformation. Schultz, a Birmingham native and Teach for America graduate, has assisted and consulted two school systems in their restructuring. First she worked for Michelle Rhee, the now famous chancellor of the D.C. public schools that gutted and reformed the system. From there, she went on to work for Mass Insight School Turnaround Group, a consulting firm that reorganized the failing Central Falls, Rhode Island school district.
With her record of reforming failing systems using charter schools as part of the solution, there is no doubt what is in store for Alabama. For the AEA, however, this means another blow to their political capital and their public image. The Birmingham News has current head of the AEA Paul Hubbert criticizing Schultz, saying, “I don’t want to prejudge someone, but certainly her background suggests little experience in public education, which is troubling.”
Although there is a change in leadership at the AEA, their position remains the same when it comes to charter schools. Mabry, Hubbart’s successor, told the Montgomery Advisor that the money for starting these charter schools will come from the already strained education budget. And, after so much money has been drained from the education budget for the general fund, the creation of new charter schools when we have failing schools is unacceptable.
It seems as if the relationship between the AEA and the new political leadership will remain tense for the time being.