After years of the status quo in public education, the Alabama Legislature and Governor Bentley enacted the Alabama Accountability Act to create alternative public education options for students trapped in Alabama’s worst schools. But over the past several weeks, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) has waged an all-out war against the Accountability Act through telephone robocalls, radio ads, and newspapers.
The AEA is one of the most powerful political players in Alabama and claims to be the “voice of education professionals in Alabama.” In fact, the AEA has been such a fixture in Alabama politics that employees of the AEA have been defined as “teachers” in the Alabama Code, regardless of their presence in the classroom. Although the AEA definitely has a voice, and a loud one at that, it is not a neutral advocate for the education profession. Even though Alabama is a right-to-work state with serious limitations on the ability of public employees to collectively bargain and strike, the AEA strongly resembles a traditional liberal union in one of the most conservative states in the nation.
AEA is an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) and a partner in its political and policy perspectives that hail from the left end of the ideological spectrum. In fact, according to the latest available federal tax documents, the AEA received over $5,000,000, nearly 25% of its annual income, from the NEA. More impressively, only the Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey affiliates received more NEA support. The NEA also provides more than mere financial backing. The AEA Constitution provides that NEA Directors will be part of its board of directors.
Why does it matter that the NEA and the AEA are so intertwined? While it does make sense for a national union to support its local affiliates, it also means that the perspectives of the NEA influence the AEA. Teachers who are members of the AEA are also automatically members of the NEA, regardless of whether they support NEA ideology. That should matter significantly.
In his parting speech before the Representative Assembly of the NEA, former NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin called out conservatives:
“Why are these conservative and right-wing bastards picking on the NEA and its affiliates? I will tell you why. It is the price we pay for success. NEA and its affiliates have been singled out because they are the most effective unions in the United States. And they are the nation’s leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal, social, and economic agenda that these [conservative] groups find unacceptable.”
Mr. Chanin is absolutely right about the political effectiveness of teachers’ unions and the fact that conservatives strongly oppose the liberal agenda they have been advancing. For decades, the NEA and the AEA have demonstrated particular success in pushing that ideology in Alabama, but many of those perspectives are at odds with increasingly reform-minded political attitudes in the state. The AEA’s liberal union perspectives now form a meaningful part of the education debate, but they no longer dominate the discussion.
For decades, the NEA and the AEA have demonstrated particular success in pushing that ideology in Alabama, but many of those perspectives are at odds with increasingly reform-minded political attitudes in the state.
For Alabama to succeed, we need exceptional educators. Virtually everyone has a story about how a teacher changed their lives for the better. But the liberal union perspective is not the only one that public educators support, and the AEA’s point of view should be treated accordingly. In other words, AEA’s ideologically-driven positions should not be assumed as the only voice for Alabama’s teachers.
To improve education outcomes, Alabama needs innovative education ideas to be implemented. Some teachers, especially newer ones, would likely jump at the chance to earn a higher salary in exchange for more mobile benefit plans in line with the rest of Alabamians. Why not develop a tenure program like New York City that awards exceptional educators while removing the bureaucratic hurdles that allow inadequate educators to remain in the classroom? These ideas and many like them have received little attention in Alabama largely because of the AEA’s political dominance.
The AEA has effectively created the perception that disagreeing with the AEA is tantamount to opposing teachers or public education in Alabama. That is simply not the case.
Voter changes in the makeup of the Alabama Legislature and the subsequent passage of the Accountability Act are evidence that Alabamians, including many educators, have a different perspective on the future of education in Alabama and the political support to make it a reality.
Cameron Smith is policy director and general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. He may be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DCameronSmith.