More than 135 school personnel from Calhoun County and beyond met with representatives from the Alabama Education Association to better understand how the Alabama Accountability Act and other measures could affect their schools, classrooms and possibly their jobs.
“Everything I know is hearsay,” said Sandri Johnson, the family and consumer science teacher at Anniston High School, on her way into the meeting. “I want to know the facts.”
The state legislature passed the Alabama Accountability Act earlier this month amid controversy after significantly altering the bill to include a tax credit to allow families to send students in failing public schools to private schools. Gov. Robert Bentley signed the measure last week after the state Supreme Court overturned an injunction sought by the AEA.
Elizabeth Beatty teaches at 10th Street Elementary School, one of four Anniston public schools found on a list of “failing” institutions put out by legislators.
As she waited outside of the school before the meeting, she said one of her primary concerns is whether funds allocated for private school vouchers will be returned to public schools if students return to their home schools mid-year.
“The money’s wiped away from public education” she said. “If they have to come back to public education, the money’s been used to educate them, to send them to private school.”
The AEA estimates the bill could cost anywhere from $55 million to $350 million in the first year alone, according to Leigh Phillips, one of the AEA officials holding the meeting.
Although Executive Secretary Henry Mabry was slated to speak to the local group, an emergency called him away and Phillips, the Northern Region Manager for AEA’s field services department, and Charmelle Lewis, a district director out of Sylacauga, fielded questions from the large group in a session that was closed to the press.
“We want them to understand the potential impact this bill is going to have on public education in Alabama,” Phillips said after the meeting.
Angela Morgan teaches science and remediation at Alexandria High School, which is not on the failing schools list. After the meeting, she said she came because she wanted to ask about how much discretion schools such as hers would have under the bill, and her fears were confirmed by AEA representatives: Public schools cannot refuse students transferring from other public schools under the bill.
“If we are not allowed to refuse students, then you can flood my class,” she said.
As a remediation teacher, Morgan sometimes works with struggling students in smaller classes. “If you suddenly put in 10 extra students, I can’t help my strugglers, and my kids get hurt.”
“I want to help every kid,” she added, “but my priority is to the kids in my community.”
While the association is explaining the new legislation to members as the law of the land, it hasn’t given up on stopping its implementation.
“We will continue to look at the bill and find ways to challenge its passage,” Phillips said.
Just a few years ago, such steps would likely have been unnecessary.
“If you’d asked me 10 years ago if some of the legislation we’ve seen pass recently would have passed, I would have said ‘no’ because the AEA would never have allowed it to get out of committee,” said Lori Owen, head of the political science department at Jacksonville State University.
Former AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert helped build “tremendous influence” in the state legislature during his more than four-decade-long tenure, according to Bill Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama.
“Before Hubbert came on the scene, AEA was impotent politically,” Stewart said, noting that the association swelled its ranks by incorporating school employees such as bus drivers and lunchroom workers as members and became a Democratic-leaning quasi-union.
“With the Republican ascent in 2010, their power has been greatly diminished,” Stewart said.
Certain candidates were once very proud to have endorsements from unions, said Stewart. But the Republicans now in the driver’s seat in Alabama politics “don’t get or expect to get union endorsements,” he said. “It might be more of a handicap.”
“Once upon a time, people in education would never have voted Republican,” she said. “More people now are voting culturally. They don’t like what they’re seeing nationally in the Democratic Party.”
But AEA is not out of the game yet, she said.
“If we’re becoming more of a one-party state that’s Republican, AEA will begin focusing on primary races that are Republican,” she said. “That will be true of all the interest groups.”
Phillips said the AEA will continue to work with Republican legislators “to be strong advocates for public education and what’s best for the students who attend our schools and the employees that work in our schools.”
The bottom line, she said, is that the AEA is “here to promote and protect and preserve public education in Alabama” — a message its members are committed to.
“Our members are dedicated to talking with their legislators, to let them know what their concerns are, their positions are,” she said. “Just an organization in general, that is what we are doing.”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.