Alabama Teachers In Political and Legal Crosshairs

Last Updated: September 28, 2011

This article appeared in the September 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Like a number of other states, Alabama has taken action in recent years aimed at curtailing tenure protections for teachers and at reducing the influence of teachers on education policy and budgeting. But lawmakers in Alabama didn’t rely only on education and labor law to accomplish their goals. Instead, a range of legislation, including a new set of ethics laws, the state's new immigration law, and assaults on the state's teacher retirement system and benefits — in addition to tenure reductions — have left many teachers unclear about their futures. This new combination of laws is particularly troublesome for teachers in some rural counties.

The Alabama policy developments have been widely characterized as a fight between the state's Republican Party, which in 2010 elections (for the first time in over a century) swept both legislative houses and retained the governorship, and the Alabama Education Association (AEA), which has long lobbied for greater education spending and higher salaries for teachers. Alabama has a statewide teacher salary scale, although local school systems can supplement the scale.

While the history and the circumstances of this current fight have some elements peculiar to Alabama, several aspects of the new legislation bear striking similarities to pieces of “model legislation” developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that works nationally with Republican state legislators and corporate representatives to develop and pass state-level laws considered more friendly to corporate interests.

“Ethics Law”

The course of events in Alabama had taken a fairly conventional course until December 2010. Earlier in the year legislation had attempted to curtail the organizing capacity of the AEA. But that effort stalled. Then in November elections, Republicans gained large majorities in both houses, and Republican Robert Bentley was elected Governor, replacing Bob Riley who had completed his two-term limit. In Alabama, legislators are seated as soon as elected in November while lame duck governors remain in office until Inauguration Day in January.

In December, Riley called a special legislative session. Only once before in state history had a lame duck governor called a December special session with a newly seated legislature. The session’s one purpose was to enact new state “ethics” laws. Within a few days legislators had passed several pieces of legislation aimed at limiting the political activity of state workers.

The most far-reaching of these new laws is SB 2/Act No. 761. It bans payroll deductions for AEA members and was scheduled to go into effect in March 2011. It also defines a variety of teacher political activities as ethics “violations” punishable with fines and jail time.

AEA challenged the law and got a partial temporary injunction on the payroll deductions provision. It also organized a push for teachers to switch to monthly bank drafts as a way to keep their AEA membership current and avoid violating the payroll deduction aspects of the ethics rules. A final ruling on challenges to the law has not yet been delivered.

Teacher Tenure Law

When the 2011 regular legislative session opened in February and while the new ethics laws were being implemented and challenged, Republican lawmakers introduced several measures aimed at curtailing the due-process rights of teachers and tying teacher evaluation and promotions to student test scores.

The most significant of these bills is SB 310, dubbed the Students First Act. When initially introduced, SB 310 broadened the reasons teachers could be dismissed, ended the neutral arbitration process Alabama has used for several years to settle employment disputes between teachers and local school boards, and dramatically narrowed recourse for teachers facing dismissal.

SB 310, and its provisions to eliminate arbitration, was backed by the Alabama Association of School Boards and by the Business Council of Alabama.

Teachers across the state lobbied against the bill, held rallies in their own counties and in Montgomery, the state’s capital.

Eventually, several provisions of SB 310 were changed. The arbitration process the state has been using were modified but left largely intact. Provisions tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, which were very similar to the ALEC model legislation, were removed; and language defining permissible reasons for teacher dismissal was trimmed.

Despite these changes, SB 310 limits tenure protections for teachers significantly and provides school boards with new loopholes for eliminating teacher positions. The most important of these is a change in Reduction in Force (RIF) laws. Under SB 310, school boards can now eliminate any teacher position through RIF. Because conditions for RIF are not defined in the law, many in the state predict that local boards will be able to declare a RIF and dismiss any teacher at will. The RIF provisions are also similar to those in ALEC legislation.

The RIF provision is likely to have a particularly strong impact in rural school systems. Because of Alabama’s local tax laws, considered the most restrictive in the nation, rural counties have very little ability to raise local revenues, making rural school systems especially dependent on state funding. And because state revenues for public education are based on sales and incomes taxes, Alabama education funding is especially vulnerable to economic downturns. The state frequently “prorates” education funding, that is, it makes across the board cuts in the middle of the school year. Those cuts fall hard on rural school systems that can't make up the difference with local revenue. 

Further, tenure protections have enabled rural school systems to maintain some stability in their teaching forces during proration and when experiencing declining enrollment.

The legislature also eliminated a key provision of the state's school funding formula, one that was put in place in response to an equity funding lawsuit. That provision required that money for teacher's salaries be spent at the school in which it was earned in the formula. That provision was intended, in large part, to protect teaching and support positions at high poverty schools from attempts to "raid" their staff by more politically influential schools. This provision, together with SB 310 will likely change the way rural school systems staff schools. Another piece of legislation those 

Immigration Law

HB 56, Alabama’s new immigration law requires schools to confirm the immigration status of all students at the time they enroll in school and all students receiving instruction in English as a Second Language.

Supporters say the law is not intended to bar undocumented children from entering public schools but will enable the state to determine how much it is spending to educate these children.

A high percentage of immigrants to the state have settled in rural communities, so the law will have a disproportionate effect in many rural schools.

The Obama administration, ACLU, a number of Alabama churches, and the SPLC  sued to stop the implementation of the law, which was scheduled to go into effect on September 1st.

In late August a federal judge temporarily halted implementation of HB 56. But earlier this month Judge Sharon Blackburn issued her ruling, which let stand key provisions of the law, including the requirement for schools to document immigration status of students.

Former Governor Riley’s plans to form new education foundation

Former Governor Riley has announced his intent to form an education foundation that will support charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and the consolidation of public schools in rural areas. Riley has also registered as a lobbyist and said he will lobby on behalf of education and economic development.

Read more:

Coverage of Judge Blackburn’s ruling:

SB 2/Act No. 761, the ethics law:

SB 310 “Students First” Act (teacher tenure law); includes links to bill as introduced and as passed:

Alabama Association of School Boards’ summary of changes to SB 310

HB 56, the immigration law:

Links to all ALEC Model Legislation at the Center for Media and Democracy, the first news organization to gain access to model legislation:

Former Governor Riley’s plan to establish an education foundation:

Read more from the September 2011 Rural Policy Matters.