AEA, no longer a threat, could help lawmakers

THE ISSUE: Once far too powerful, the humbled Alabama Education Association could be a valuable resource for lawmakers. Additional attacks on the organization further insulate the Legislature from sound advice on education reform.

For decades, the Alabama Education Association wielded far too much power in the state. It was well-funded, had a large membership base and was ruthless in its political activity.

One of the first items on the agenda when the GOP took control of the Legislature in 2010 was to beat the organization down. The first few legislative swipes may have helped the state, curbing the power of an organization that had for too long controlled the Statehouse.

The beating continues unabated, however, and it is no coincidence that education bills and laws are increasingly frustrating to the professionals required to implement them.

The latest attack on AEA would make sense in isolation, but it’s a reminder the Legislature doesn’t know when to quit. A House bill would prevent AEA employees from participating in the state’s retirement system.

On its face, this is not a bad move. AEA employees, after all, are not public employees. The problem it poses for educators — and the purpose of the bill — is that it makes it difficult for public school teachers to take jobs with the AEA. That’s unfortunate because, beaten down as it is, the AEA still is an important tool for educators to communicate with legislators.

As a spokeswoman for AEA explained, “What we do is try to hire the best and brightest classroom teachers to represent their colleagues … no one knows what goes on in the classroom like teachers do. To attract them, we have to offer the same benefits as if they were in the classroom.”

Participation in the state retirement system by AEA’s 80 employees costs the state nothing. Nor is the inclusion of non-public employees in the state retirement system unusual.

The employees of about a dozen other organizations participate, including the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the Alabama Association of School Boards and the Tennessee Valley Rehabilitation Center.

Starting this year, public employees, including educators, are prohibited from being lawmakers. While lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and members of every conceivable occupation potentially affected by state laws can have a seat at the Statehouse, most educators cannot.

What the Legislature has managed to do is insulate itself from educators’ input.

The results are painfully obvious. Potentially positive laws are flawed because legislators passed them without receiving advice from teachers who understand how they will play out in the classroom. Bill after bill seeks to repeal the state’s version of the Common Core curriculum, when the teachers who have reason to resent the extra workload the curriculum creates for them are convinced it helps their students. Laws drain money from school budgets, and the legislators who sponsor them seem oblivious of the devastating impact the financial loss has on classrooms.

It’s time for legislators to recognize the AEA is no longer a political threat. Lawmakers also should recognize they are in serious need of advice on the effect their legislation has on students. A humbled AEA would be a valuable resource for those legislators who want Alabama’s public schools to meet the needs of the next generation.

(Published April 27, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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