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Hubbard hopes next AEA leader supports GOP-backed school reforms


MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) on Monday reacted to news that Alabama Education Association (AEA) boss Henry Mabry — one of the most polarizing and adversarial figures in Montgomery — had been fired.

“The AEA leadership over the last four years has been unwilling and unable to work with the Republican supermajority in the Alabama Legislature,” Hubbard said. “My hope is that fresh, new leadership within that organization will be willing to cooperate in implementing needed reforms in our public schools, which will improve education opportunities for teachers, parents, and students alike.”

Since the story broke Saturday morning that Mabry was out, rumors of his successor have circulated swiftly, with former Democratic state senator Roger Bedford frequently mentioned as the early frontrunner. Bedford represented his north Alabama legislative district for over three decades before being defeated by Republican Larry Stutts in November.

“I think that’s a very important position and public education needs some strong leadership to help counter the attacks that are coming with the charter school crowd,” Bedford said on Monday, telling al.com that he’d been receiving encouragement from both sides of the aisle to seek the AEA post.

Whoever the new leader is, he or she will start with the deck stacked against them. Between flagging public support, an empty war chest, and a Republican supermajority in the State Legislature, the AEA will need to conduct some serious soul-searching about what issues really matter most to them in upcoming years.

Though the AEA’s now-loosened stranglehold on Alabama’s political process may have produced tangible benefits for teachers over the years, the state’s near-bottom rankings in educational outcomes have frequently been pointed out by conservative legislators as evidence that the group’s policies are often detrimental to students.

Among the expected priorities of the State Legislature during the upcoming 2015 session are charter schools, tenure reform, and budget reform — three areas against which the AEA has spent untold resources during the last 45 years.

Many Montgomery insiders believe the AEA is now essentially faced with two choices: either adapt to the new realities of Republican control, or incur further debt to wage a publicity war in an attempt to swing public opinion against popular GOP-backed school reforms.

In the last several years, at least one influential, traditionally Democratic-aligned organization has switched gears completely, possibly serving as something of a blueprint for the AEA. The Alabama Trial Lawyers Association gave 95% of its political donations to Democrats through 2010, but sensing a change in the political winds, gave over 80 percent of its legislative contributions to Republicans in 2013 and 2014. As a result, the group has maintained a seat at the table for its members, even if it doesn’t wield the power it once did.

In contrast, the AEA under Mabry’s leadership positioned itself as the GOP’ most outspoken adversary, spending tens of millions of dollars to unseat incumbent Republicans. The strategy was spectacularly ineffective in 2014. The AEA won zero statewide races, zero state senate races and only a handful of state house seats in the GOP primary, and did not pick up a single one of its targeted seats in the general election.

The AEA’s choice for new leadership will signal whether the group is ready to adapt, or plunge further into irrelevance.

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