MONTGOMERY — It was once considered the dominant lobbying group in Montgomery. Its leaders were more powerful than most lawmakers, including every governor in recent history except George Wallace during his heyday.
Now, the Alabama Education Association is facing what it calls repeated attacks from the Republican leadership in the Legislature. Montgomery insiders said the GOP mission is clear: Strip the organization's clout.
The most recent battle is the GOP's now signed school Alabama Accountability Act, which allows public money to help send students to private schools.
Republican leadership got the tax credit language in the bill after the legislation had gone through public hearings and debate, a move circumventing the AEA and other lobbying groups.
There's another bill working its way through the system that expands membership on the state Teachers' Retirement Systems board to include representatives from four-year colleges. It also removes AEA Executive Secretary Henry Mabry from the board, a seat the AEA has had for dozens of years.
"A few decades ago, I would have called the AEA the single most important interest group in Alabama," said William Stewart, political science emeritus at the University of Alabama.
Now, he said, it still is a force to be reckoned with, but doesn't hold the same power.
"The ascent of the GOP has led to the descent of the AEA," Stewart said. "The stronger the Republican Party is, the weaker the AEA is."
The 104,000-member AEA is an "advocate organization that leads the movement for excellence in education and is the voice of education professionals in Alabama," according to its website.
To weaken AEA is to weaken public education, Mabry said.
"There is no difference in attacking public education and attacking the AEA," he said
He points to a list of bills passed by Republicans since they took power in 2010 as examples of those attacks.
"What they want to do is privatize education, just like they want to privatize other aspects of state government," Mabry said.
Republican leaders in the Legislature said they're not out to get the AEA, they're just leveling the political playing field.
"AEA has finally been knocked down to a level where they have no more power than anyone else," Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the AEA is being treated the same as any other organization seeking a voice in the process.
"We listen to their arguments, we weigh the facts, and we do whatever is in the best interests of the Alabama taxpayers we were elected to serve," he said. "It has been a difficult adjustment for AEA, which was used to demanding blind loyalty from legislators. If they want to serve their members effectively, they will learn to adjust to the new system."
Marsh said the Republicans' goal is to improve education.
"They should be the Alabama Teachers' Association, not the Alabama Education Association," said Marsh, who was largely responsible for the portion of the Accountability Act that allows for tax credits. "They represent teachers. That's their job, and I respect that, but we've got to make sure that everyone has to be accountable. It's not an attack on education. What we're trying to do is have true improvement in education, which means reform in education.
"If they think they're being attacked because we're trying to have reform in education, I'm sorry, they're going to have to explain that one."
Democrats in the Statehouse often vote pro-AEA, a trend that has remained solid for decades. But Democrats also are largely on the sidelines in state government these days because of their own weakened position in the Republican supermajority.
Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, calls his GOP colleagues "anti-public education."
"They've had a determined plan to destroy AEA, even before they took over," he said.
He said AEA has been crucial for decades in building good public schools, and he doesn't think they were too powerful when his party was in control.
"They were just like the (Business Council of Alabama) and ALFA; they have a membership and want to represent that membership to the best of their ability," he said.
Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, said Republicans have passed one horrible bill after another when it comes to education — just to get at the AEA.
"The Republican legislators need to wake up and understand that their childish, political games to destroy AEA harms our children and public education, which in turn harms economic development in our state," she said.
Republicans counter that education in the state hasn't exactly been a success story.
"Think of all the years that AEA ran the show in Montgomery and then consider the fact that public education in Alabama was consistently ranked 49th and 50th in the nation throughout that period," Hubbard said. "The Republican leadership is committed to improving public education by fixing what is broken, preserving what is working and searching for the innovations and new ideas that can take us to the next level."
House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, has been a lawmaker since 2002 and said the AEA used to run the House.
"If they don't like not being in charge anymore, I make no apologies for that," he said.
Longtime AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert said last week there has always been conflict between the organization and lawmakers, but now it's increased.
"You didn't have Democrats trying to create charter schools and voucher programs," he said. "This Legislature has tried to set itself up as a super school board and tried to dictate curriculum."
He said many Republicans are still pro-public education, "but it seems leadership is willing to take money from every kid in the state and give it to a few kids."
One of the major oppositions to the Accountability Act is that it will take money from the Education Trust Fund, although how much is still unclear. Supporters argue the amount will be a tiny percentage of the overall education budget.
"I definitely think that it annoys (Republican leadership) that they have to deal with the AEA," Hubbert said. "I don't think there's any question that they are trying to weaken the organization, but they may be doing just the opposite.
"The more they gouge AEA, the more AEA fights back, and the more it strengthens members' commitment. I always found in the 42 years that I was there, a good fight rallied our membership."
There have been plenty of fights in recent years.
Last week, the bill to add more representation from four-year universities to the Teachers' Retirement System board and remove Mabry passed through the Senate Education Committee.
Neither Mabry nor anyone else from the AEA spoke during a public hearing before the vote. Insiders said there was little question about the motives of the committee.
"This bill is nothing but a continuation of the legislative leadership's relentless and irrational attack on public school teachers, their jobs and future financial security," Mabry said later.
Democrats shared the same sentiment during the meeting.
"Is this another stab at trying to kill AEA," Senate Minority Leader Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, asked. "That's what it sounds like. Why can't you just add two members to the board?"
Bill supporters said a 15-member board would be too large.
"That's not a good argument," Figures said.
Gloria Johnson, an AEA representative in Morgan County, said educators now feel like they have targets on their backs.
"They call it the Accountability Act, but it is just a way to harm public education, in my opinion," Johnson said. "We don't have educators in Montgomery, we have business people."
The rhetoric from both sides rarely includes discussion about the children.
"You could say (the AEA's) acted too much like a union in representing the interest of their own members, but the fact of the matter is they have a vested interest in public education in Alabama," Stewart said.
"To the extent that AEA is greatly weakened, that is a detriment to public education ... and those that are dependent on it will suffer as a result."
Mary Sell can be reached at mary.sell@TimesDaily.com.
Since late 2010, the Republican-dominated Legislature has passed a variety of bills that opponents say are anti-education and anti-Alabama Education Association. Those include:
A 2010 bill bans public employees from paying dues through payroll deduction to any political action group. The AEA sued and the challenge is still pending.
Around the same time, lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting state employees from "double-dipping" by also becoming lawmakers. The bill will keep educators, including ones currently in the two-year and four-year college system, and other state workers out of the Legislature.
In 2011, lawmakers passed a bill pushed by school boards and superintendents to change the way school employees contest dismissals. The AEA said it weakened tenure laws; proponents said it made it easier and cheaper to get rid of bad teachers.
A bill last year increased what teachers contribute toward their retirement from 5 percent of their paychecks to 7.5 percent. Opponents call it a pay cut.
Last year, the AEA rallied to help defeat a bill, backed by Gov. Robert Bentley, that would have allowed for charter schools in the state. That bill died in committee.
Last week, the Alabama Accountability Act was signed into law. It allows public money to follow students from failing public schools to private ones, in the form of tax credits. The Accountability Act does not allow for charter schools.