Founded in 1856 in Selma, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) was an organization controlled by local school administrators and functioned primarily to reinforce the status quo as school superintendents drove its policies more than teachers and other education employees. Since the 1970s, however, the AEA has been one of the most formidable interest groups in Alabama state politics. Its executive secretary, Paul Hubbert, who has led the organization since 1969, has often been characterized as the "real governor" of Alabama for his ability to deliver pay raises, health care benefits, and a generous pension program for Alabama's public education system personnel.
The transformational event in AEA's history was its merger in 1969 with the black teacher's organization, the Alabama State Teachers Association (ASTA). With the addition of the 10,000 ASTA members, AEA became an organization with approximately 30,000 members. Though this number was impressive, more importantly, the merger brought together white and black school personnel in a united organization with two young leaders who were knowledgeable about the political process. Paul Hubbert, formerly superintendent of Troy city schools, was hired only months before the merger, whereas ASTA executive director Joe Reed had already served two years with ASTA. Together, they forged a partnership that continues to this day. In the new organization, Reed became AEA's associate executive director. Within a relatively short time, AEA oriented itself to serving primarily the largest portion of its membership, teachers and support personnel, rather than the administrators who had dominated the organization in earlier years.
Hubbert and Reed earned the confidence of their members early on when they resisted a powerful governor, George Wallace, who attempted to divert funds from the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) of Alabama and the Education Trust Fund in 1971 to pay for improvements in the state's substandard mental health system. During this period the governor in effect appointed the leadership of the House of Representatives, including its floor leaders and the chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Despite Wallace's seeming near total control of decision-making processes in the body, he was defeated in his efforts to divert these funds by a massive grassroots effort orchestrated by AEA. Whereas it appeared at the beginning of the conflict that Wallace would prevail, a different outcome engineered by Hubbert and Reed ingratiated them with AEA rank and file members.
The Education Trust Fund has grown at a much higher rate than the General Fund, which funds most of the rest of state government. Yet, for many years no serious effort has been made to divert monies from traditional sources of education funding for other purposes because AEA defeated Wallace's efforts at a time when he was at the peak of his influence, politically speaking. From time to time, state newspapers editorialize about Alabama having the largest percentage of its tax revenues earmarked for specific programs and making the case for doing away with the practice to provide Alabama lawmakers with the flexibility to address needs in a timely fashion. However, bills introduced to effect unearmarking have remained buried in committee with little chance of floor action and a likelihood of passage because of AEA's lobbying strength.
Another key factor in AEA's development into an influential organization is that it has done an outstanding job of expanding its membership. Whereas 30,000 was an impressive membership total in 1969, AEA has grown to 104,000 members as of early 2009. The size of AEA indicates the confidence that teachers and other school personnel have in the organization to represent their interests. Into the twenty-first century, 90 percent of all K-12 public school teachers and 70 percent of support personnel are members of AEA. Community college instructors in the state, who represent about 70 percent of community college faculty, are another large membership block within AEA. The overall membership numbers are especially impressive as AEA members cannot be members of AEA alone, but also must join the National Education Association (NEA) to be a member in good standing of AEA. Thus, AEA is probably one of the leading state education associations in the nation in terms of representing teachers without union representation, which is the case for many states outside the South.
The impressive membership totals translate into a substantial organizational budget that allows AEA to hire and retain an experienced staff that plays a key role in achieving its objectives. AEA does not reveal its annual operating budget, but its financial resources fund a large staff of 100 individuals who work in a three-story building near Capitol Hill in Montgomery. Whereas only a portion of the staff works actively in the political arena, their numbers and their experience are indicators of AEA's viability in surviving political battles over the years.
As with most interest groups with an active public policy agenda, AEA has an affiliated political action committee, A-Vote, that allows AEA to be one of the largest electoral campaign contributors in Alabama. From 2002 through 2007, AEA reports submitted to the Alabama Secretary of State indicate that it contributed more than $9.6 million to political campaigns. Traditionally, AEA has provided a far larger portion of A-Vote funds to Democratic Party candidates for legislative office than for Republican legislative candidates. Such a contribution pattern is to be expected as the Democrats control both houses of the Alabama legislature with substantial majorities.
AEA is currently able to win most of its legislative battles. Its opponents are making a significant effort to limit its influence over education and education policies. Early in 2008, Republican governor Bob Riley and his legislative allies pledged to raise $7 million with the purpose of electing in 2010 a Republican majority in both houses of the Alabama legislature. Also, a directive by the Chancellor of the Office of Postsecondary Education that junior college personnel must choose between their junior college positions or legislative positions by 2010 if they hold both is a policy that, if implemented, will negatively affect AEA's legislative allies as there will be fewer educators in the legislature.
Finally, it is most likely that AEA's largest challenge will be transitioning to new leadership in the near future. For Hubbert and Reed, who began their professional careers in the 1960s, retirement cannot be that distant a possibility. More than anything else, AEA's political power will be associated with its ability to transition to new, effective leadership.