By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Last week, Dr. Robert E. Witt, Chancellor of The University of Alabama System, announced the formation of Alabama Unites for Education (AUE), an association building “a strong grassroots coalition” to “protect school funding, support a quality education system for all in Alabama, and to avoid any further cuts to the Education Trust Fund (ETF).”
Insiders believe AUE was created to fill the void left after the collapse of the Alabama Education Association (AEA).
In the last Special Session of 2015, the ETF was once again raided to prop-up the anemic State General Fund Budget (GFB). More changes to the budget are believed to be coming with the 2016 Legislative Session. Having pried the ETF from the firm grip of Sen. Trip Pittman,(R-Fairhope), handing it over to Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) has raised speculation of more dramatic swifts in education funding. Some in the senate are hearing that Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) will be coming with a complete education agenda next session.
Marsh, who is looking at a gubernatorial bid in 2018, wants to polish his image and raise his profile as an education leader.
State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Tommy Bice, said of AUE, “Alabama Unites for Education is proof of the progress we are making at all levels of our education system to work together to best prepare our students for the 21st century. Never before has Alabama taken such a cohesive approach to preparing our students for success. Alabama Unites for Education will bring people together to strengthen our education system for all of Alabama.”
This professed faith in the new organization is echoed by many leaders around the State, including Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Birmingham Mayor William Bell, Presidents of the major universities, and other educators.
With the unraveling of the AEA, a void has been created allowing groups like the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and its Chairman Billy Canary to dominate the political agenda in the State House. Canary’s idea of good government has often clashed with pro-education legislators. But because of his close ties to Marsh, and especially indicted Speaker Mike Hubbard, BCA has ruled supreme.
AUE is seen by its founders as the best hope to keep education dollars from flowing into the vacuous pit of State government expenses.
AEA’s near total destruction is always on the minds of many in the Republican party because of its membership and war chest. When the Republican supermajority was swept into office, the 2010 leadership began to systematically dismantle the education organization. In four years, the results of the plan had all but crippled the once powerful political machine by denying dues to be directly drawn from State paychecks. A self-inflicted wound came when in a late night coup when the association broad-handed the operational reins over to the National Education Association (NEA).
Last week, the AEA changed its constitution shifting power away from the Executive Secretary and into the elected board.
Politicos inside the State House believe a deal can be reached to restore “dues check-off” if AEA will promise not to engage in future political campaigns. Sources close to the AEA say that this is at least a very likely scenario.
One AEA member speaking on background said that in the near future, “the AEA will be little more than a nice group that brings milk and cookies to the classroom.
Those who want to protect education dollars from the tax, borrow and spend Republicans in charge of State government see AUE as their best hope.