Earlier this month, a bill was introduced in the Alabama Senate targeting the performance of the state’s teachers. The aptly named Preparing and Rewarding Education Professionals (PREP) Act, sponsored by State Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston), would provide procedures for evaluating teachers and administrators on performance and student achievement, while increasing the number of years of service required to attain tenure and establishing procedures for personnel action by the governing board for tenured teachers who receive two consecutive ratings below expectations.

What expectations, exactly? According to an analysis by Trisha Powell Crain of the nonprofit, nonpartisan state education news service Alabama School Connection, the PREP Act calls for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based “solely on the results of growth on tests from one year to the next.”

“The PREP Act calls for using a ‘student growth model,’ also known as a value-added measure, as a measure of student effectiveness and mandates that 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on the results of that student growth model,” Crain wrote.

According to Marsh, the evaluation is based on the Alabama State Department of Education’s “educator effectiveness model,” which in addition to measuring “student growth data” based on standardized testing and other indicators, also includes significant elements of teacher observation, self-assessment, surveying, developing a professional learning plan and providing somewhat ill-defined “evidence,” among other things, to judge teacher performance.

If signed into law, the PREP Act could be the latest in a series of monumental shifts in state education over the past few years, changes that have included the introduction of charter schools and student choice vouchers. During the same time, the legislature has been accused of dipping into the state’s Education Trust Fund to balance the troubled General Fund budget.

Although it passed the Senate’s Education and Youth Affairs Committee by just a slim margin, the fact that the PREP Act was even introduced is perhaps the latest indication of the decreased legislative influence of the Alabama Education Association, historically the most powerful lobbying organization in Montgomery.

With roots reaching back more than 100 years, the AEA is a professional organization representing teachers, administrators and other employees of the public school system. The AEA is most notable for its efforts since 1969, when it secured a 21 percent pay increase for teachers, followed by the state’s first uniform salary schedule.

Other victories in the ensuing decades include establishing the Education Trust Fund within the state budget while also advocating for maternity leave, healthcare, on-the-job injury leave and tenure for public school employees. For 30 years, between 1982 and 2012, the AEA was led by President Paul Hubbert who, using the organization’s expansive financial resources, was also known to pick and choose political candidates for offices in the House, Senate and statehouse. More often than not, those candidates were Democrats.

But in 2010, riding a wave of national political discord, a slate of Republican candidates rose above the influence of the education lobby to take control of both branches of the statehouse. One of the conservative Legislature’s first orders of business was attempting to strip the AEA of its power, and it passed a law removing the organization’s dues deduction from education employees’ paychecks.

Since then, the AEA’s revenue has dropped from $21.1 million in the 2011 reporting year to $15.9 million in 2014, according to federal tax exemption records. At the same time, it dove into the red with expenses, from a shortfall of $312,910 in 2011 to a deficit of more than $8.5 million in 2014.

Over the same period the AEA’s total assets plunged from more than $18.1 million in 2011 to $5 million in 2014, the last year for which 990s are available.

State Sen. Trip Pittman, the senate’s current General Fund budget chairman and former education budget chair, said the 2010 Republican takeover of the state Legislature contributed to the AEA’s financial woes.

“When the Republicans were able to win the Legislature in 2010, we made some reforms that impacted the AEA,” said Pittman, who was first elected to represent Baldwin County’s District 32 in 2007. “We had a chance to take over the Legislature in 2002 and 2006, but after some redistricting and retirements of some older Democrats with recognizable names, we ultimately won a supermajority in 2010.”

Pittman said actions taken by the Legislature to end the AEA’s practice of deducting membership dues directly from its members’ paychecks further hurt the AEA’s financial stability.

“That took away a lot of the AEA’s membership dues,” Pittman recalled. “That was a big part of what led to the AEA not having the resources to adequately fund its efforts during the 2014 election, and they went into further debt and lost again.”

Hubbert retired in 2012 but remained an influential figure until his death in October 2014. A letter from Hubbert to the AEA dated just a month before he died said the organization’s problems stemmed from both the Republican takeover of the House and AEA leadership under his immediate successor, Henry Mabry.

In the letter, Hubbert said AEA’s problems were both external — “the challenge posed by the supermajority and general perceptions of the AEA and its leadership and loss of funding and payroll deduction and membership” — and internal because of “financial, organizational, personnel and management problems.”

Hubbert’s letter cited IRS Form 990s and AEA audits he said showed the organization was “not living within its means.”

This week, AEA spokesperson Amy Marlowe admitted it has been a “rocky road” for the organization, but she downplayed its loss of influence, saying it has reorganized to advocate for specific issues, rather than for the politicians who propose them.

“At the AEA we have always had presence in the Legislature when it comes to educational issues, not just policy but protecting the funding in the Education Trust Fund budget,” she said. “In addition to education policy, we are also very involved in the money the taxpaying citizens sent to public schools and universities, and we’re still the largest professional association and largest education association in the state.”

Regarding the partisan shift in the Legislature, Marlowe cited an approved 2017 education budget that includes the first increase in teacher take-home pay in nine years.

“As we are beginning to get to know each other, we’ve been successful throughout this Legislative session,” she said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get to that point … it was a sea change, a lot of freshman legislators not familiar with the legislative process. Some already had preconceived notions of the AEA — an image created throughout the media — and it took some time to build relationships.”  

Still, the organization finds itself on the defensive when it comes to the PREP Act, and is also battling a proposed reorganization of the state’s two-year college system that would also end tenure for teachers.

Jesse McDaniel, a local director in Mobile County for AEA member services, said the PREP Act poses an obvious threat to the teachers he represents.

“Our position is it’s extremely dangerous to public schools as we know them, because the PREP bill would connect a single test, the ACT Aspire, to the annual evaluation of public school teachers,” he said. “A teacher is more than a test score, a student is more than a test score. It will exacerbate the problem of recruiting teachers, and another problem with the bill is it eliminates rights for support workers. It’s totally unacceptable.”

As one of around 35 UniServ directors working on behalf of the AEA in local school districts, McDaniel’s responsibilities include representing the organization’s broader interests locally and serving as a liaison between members and local school boards.

Speaking generally about the organizational changes within the AEA since he was hired more than four years ago by Hubbert, McDaniel said he’s seen no cause for concern.

“After 2012, the board decided to make changes in staffing,” he said. “One thing that changed is now the AEA is more of a member-driven organization, with members taking on more responsibility in areas that used to be handled by staff. The Legislature’s removal of the automatic payroll deduction hurt, but we’re actually growing again membership-wise; there are efforts underway to get payroll deduction back and ‘certify’ it with the state, that you will or won’t do certain things. We’ve had attacks from all directions, but now more than ever AEA has an important role.”

Today the organization is led by Sheila Hocutt Remington.

McDaniel said he represents about 4,500 members of Mobile County’s 7,500-teacher school system. Locally, the AEA is currently advocating in favor of an increase in the number of school nurses and against a new county teaching mandate known as the “common formative assessment” (CFA), an effort asking teachers to provide monthly evaluations of their students’ performance.

Rena Havner-Phillips, the director of communication for the Mobile County Public School System, described the common formative assessments as “a manageable way for teachers to ensure students have a mastery of skills one chunk at a time. It’s taking the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards and working backwards with them to ensure students are where they need to be.”

But McDaniel characterizes it differently.

“It’s an extremely unpopular requirement that started with the academic affairs department in the local office. It creates so much work and was voluntary but is being made mandatory. The assessment is being done school by school, so [it] is the definition of ‘uncommon.’ Teachers are already underpaid and underappreciated, but now they feel like they are getting dumped on and they are tired.”

Havner-Phillips said teacher participation in the assessments is not mandatory, but teachers who do participate receive a professional development credit.

“We believe strongly in Alabama College and Career Ready Standards and this is a much more managerial way instead of, ‘this is all I have to teach the entire year of fifth grade.’ It’s just taking it one chunk at a time,” she explained.

Superintendent Martha Peek issued a statement which read, “Schools that are progressive and using best practices are using CFAs because they see it as an effective way to manage the transition to the more rigorous standards. As a result our students will move forward academically.”

While legislators may be keeping the AEA at arm’s length, a vacancy created by the absence of one lobby is sure to be filled by others. In her time first as an education activist in Hoover and since 2014 as the publisher of the Alabama School Connection, Crain said special-interest groups still have an active role in state education policy.

“Politics make some strange players and I see it like a circle,” she explained. “Usually you have a line on the far left and a line on the far right and maybe some moderates, but in education, those two ends often close up together and sometimes you’ll see the far right and far left aligning.”

In the past few years in Montgomery, the right has been focused on developing business and workforce initiatives in the education system using data and metrics. The left has been interested in combating core problems facing students, such as health and poverty, that can hinder their progress outside the classroom. But lately those groups have not had a seat at the table.

“Who is pulling the strings? Certainly not the AEA, because they don’t have much political power at all, they are trying to reorganize,” Crain said. “I know Remington is making it an organization to serve teachers, which gets to the heart of what education is really about — but I don’t know what goes on behind the scene. It does seem the advocacy offices in Alabama have great influence on the Legislature, but that is more of a national movement. It seems in a lot of cases, each state legislature seems to be pushing educators farther from the table when it comes to negotiating policy.”

In the AEA’s place, Crain suggested, organizations like the Business Council of Alabama and Alabama Policy Institute have carried weight. But in a statement provided to Lagniappe by BCA President and CEO William Canary, BCA’s education advocacy is focused on educators.

“The Business Council of Alabama’s legislative agenda has maintained a longstanding policy of supporting educator professional development, teacher mentorship and recruiting incentives for subjects that are difficult to staff and for those who work in underserved areas,” the statement reads. “To ensure accountability in our public schools, there must be alternative methods of compensating teaching professionals that are proven to be fair and valid and allow for pay differentials and incentives based on performance.

“Research has clearly shown that teachers are the number one in-school factor impacting student success. The second most important factor is a strong school leader. Educators that make the greatest impact on student achievement deserve to be recognized and rewarded. None of this is possible without a high-quality evaluation system.”

According to Alabama Policy Institute Vice President Katherine Robertson, its initiatives have also been favored recently by the new Legislature.

“We’ve been around for 20 years as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting free markets, limited government and strong families,” Robertson said. “Education is an important piece of what makes a strong state, so we’ve always reserved part of our portfolio for education issues. We pushed for charter schools and school choice for the better part of 20 years. So the Accountability Act’s passage was something we advocated for a long time.

“We have written extensively on teacher tenure reform over the years, defining it as a multi-faceted approach with no silver bullet. Regarding the PREP Act, we put out a paper in January with four recommendations and two are in the act and we’re very pleased with that.”

Robertson wouldn’t speak about the AEA directly, but said the API’s approach is more unique.

“Our general philosophy is we aren’t for doing things the same they’ve always been done just because they’ve always been done that way. A lot has gone on in Montgomery over the years where we kept doing the same things over and over again and nobody asked why. If new approaches are working in other states that we could learn from and adopt, we would certainly be open to considering it.”

Meanwhile, longtime educator, AEA member and current Mobile County School Board member Bill Foster believes the AEA has been dealt a bad hand but still plays an important role.

“I believe that a lot of new legislators had a problem with Hubbert when he was in control, but Hubbert passed away, and I believe some are trying to get back at the association for the power it had,” he said. “But the AEA is not the same organization as it was when Hubbert was in charge.”

“Eighty-five percent of our budget has to do with personnel costs, and I think it’s incumbent to work with organizations like the AEA,” he said. “I like this new direction AEA is headed, and the reason I do, if we can work together for the solution of problems we have in common, that’s all the better. It pleases me the AEA is getting out of the business of state politics in that they play heavily in elections. It’s one thing if you back a candidate, but more toward the professional side of things, a professional organization that’s going to be a direct benefit to the people they serve.”