“We’ll be going some places in education like we’ve never gone before,” Gov. Kay Ivey proclaimed shortly before winning Alabama’s gubernatorial election by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
With soaring rhetoric like that, we have nothing to worry about, do we?
Alabama’s lawmakers seem committed to K-12 public education. They acknowledge the need for better results because since Republicans took over in 2011, the trend has not been as good as hoped.
It turned out that despite a retreat by the Alabama Education Association (AEA) teachers’ union in the halls of power of Montgomery, public schools did not improve — not that there was any correlation between the two.
If 2023 is the year for policy strides in this arena, what does that mean?
No one seems quite sure, or if they are, they are not saying.
Conservative activists, when they are no longer railing against Common Core, proclaim school choice is the solution to all of our public school education woes.
The problem begins when you try to define what school choice is precisely.
A conventional definition suggests that tax dollars follow the student, and if the parents choose a private school for their student, then those dollars do not go to the public school the student is zoned for but not attending. Instead, the dollars go to the private school.
That makes sense, right?
That is not exactly what Ivey and others have suggested they have in mind when confronted about the possibility of expanded school choice.
Yes, Ivey gives a nod to school choice in her public appearance, but it leads to a mention of charter schools.
“The truth is we need to provide our charter schools with some startup funds so when they get started, they can stay started and continue to prove the quality education,” she said during an interview with Alabama Public Television when asked about the possibility of school choice.
At this point, what do we know?
Historically, the AEA has opposed school choice. In 2022, on the day then-State Sen. Del Marsh, formerly the president pro-tem of the Alabama Senate, dropped his “mother of all” school choice bills, 40 lobbyists affiliated with the AEA filled the Alabama State House that day.
It was meant to be a flex by the teachers’ union. The message was, yes, we are aware of this legislation being part of the discussion. But we are here, too.
Marsh’s bill was later sent to a committee for study and never to be seen the rest of the session.
That and other shows of force were signs the AEA was back.
Once upon a time, Republicans viewed everything wrong with Montgomery to be tied to the AEA — perhaps an exaggeration on their part, but it worked.
The pre-2011 Alabama Republican Party had made then-AEA head Paul Hubbert the archvillain of the era.
Hubbert did not exactly run away from the moniker. In an era before smartphones, he was known as a guy who would stand on the balconies of the Legislature and point to his eye for an “aye” vote and his nose for a “no” vote.
Under Hubbert, the AEA was the king of the mountain, tying up the business of the Legislature favored by the Big Mules.
And Republicans made it seem like Alabama was languishing because of the influence Hubbert peddled.
It was a good run until Democrats succumbed to the prevailing political trend of the South and lost control of everything in Alabama.
Slowly, however, they clawed their way back into relevance.
The cash helped. During the entirety of the 2022 campaign cycle, AEA spent $1.5 million on state politics, making Republicans the net beneficiaries over their Democrat counterparts by a 2-to-1 margin.
Fifteen years earlier, a Republican lawmaker might have been run out of the party for accepting teachers’ union contributions.
One thing to watch in the coming year is the unenforced Alabama Republican Party bylaw that discourages party members from accepting AEA contributions.
While most state-level Republicans have ignored that guideline, some still adhere to it.
The AEA would like that “suggestion” to go away, which would allow them to give freely, just as if they were ALFA, Alabama Power, BCA, PCI or any of the other players in the Alabama political scene.
What might the AEA give in return? How about its blessing to “school choice.”
This is why that definition of “school choice” is essential. Yeah, we’re for school choice, but under only the most extraordinary conditions, as in you’re in a failing school that shows no sign of improving. Then we’ll think about letting you go to another school, maybe within your system.
“Yay, we got school choice. Open up the AEA spigot and let the cash flow in,” will be the response, and nothing will get better.
Yes, a pure school choice system might have problems and unintended consequences. But be wary of a “school choice in name only” offering.