But one proposed multi-million-dollar increase in the education budget seems likely to get lots of traction – even with a budget-slashing Republican majority in both houses.
Last week, state Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, proposed the creation of a state-sponsored liability insurance program to protect teachers against lawsuits by students and their parents. The price tag? Love says it will cost $9.8 million in the first year.
Love says the measure is designed to correct a long-standing inconsistency in state government. State Troopers and other state officials have long had liability insurance that is paid for by the state. Teachers usually buy their insurance by becoming members of the Alabama Education Association, which is known for rapidly coming to the defense of teachers in legal trouble.
AEA officials say Love’s measure is a clear ploy to kill their organization. Liability insurance is one of the biggest direct benefits the teacher’s union provides for its members. By providing an alternative –- after many years of the state ignoring teachers’ need for insurance protection –- Love is trying to bleed off the AEA’s membership, AEA officials say.
“Who is asking for this, is what I’d like to know,” said Teresa Noell, who acts as the AEA’s local representative, otherwise known as a UniServ director. “Nobody has requested this. It’s not a pressing need. It’s just another way to attack AEA.”
Love maintains that he has, indeed, heard from teachers who want an alternative to AEA liability insurance.
“I’ve talked to teachers in my Sunday school class, teachers in PTA meetings, and just people I’ve met while campaigning, people who said they wish they didn’t have to rely on the AEA,” he said. “No public employee should be forced to join a private organization.”
Love says it’s all about fairness. And he notes that the issue has been brought up before – with bills introduced in past years by Rep. Mike Hubbard, past chairman of the Republican Party and now Speaker of the House.
But the timing of the bill has definitely raised eyebrows.
For one thing, it comes on the heels of the measure known as SB2, a bill that would prohibit teachers from having their AEA dues automatically withdrawn from their paychecks. And then there was the ruling by the Department of Postsecondary Education earlier this month that prohibited AEA officials like Noell from enrolling new members on community college campuses.
And then there’s the budget situation. On Friday, Gov. Robert Bentley announced that proration was indeed coming. Fifteen-percent cuts will be coming to every non-education agency within the month, Bentley said at a convention of newspaper executives.
There's also the role of party politics. While the AEA will occasionally cross party lines to defeat a candidate the group truly dislikes, the group has in the past been a fount of funding for Democrats. Executive secretary Paul Hubbert has been a Democratic candidate for governor and a co-chair of the state party.
For the teachers in Love’s Sunday school class –- teachers who don’t like AEA -– Love’s proposal is a good deal, because this is not just an alternative way for teachers to buy insurance. Love said his plan will create a completely state-funded insurance protection for teachers within the state’s Division of Risk Management. Essentially, teachers will get this insurance for free –- at taxpayers’ expense.
“I can’t imagine why a teacher would be against that,” Love said.
Which puts the AEA in the position of asking what, up until now, were generally considered Republican questions.
“How can he create a new program with a budget situation like this?” Noell asked.
Love expects to bring up the bill sometime in the second or third week of the regular legislative session, which begins March 1.
Meanwhile AEA officials are working to offset the effect of SB2, which has required them to meet with union members and enroll them through a new payment method that involves an automatic bank draft.
So far, the AEA has maintained that its 105,000-strong enrollment hasn’t been affected by SB2. But Noell says that, as early as this week, she’ll have numbers that will show whether enrollment is down.
“So far, it seems to be going well,” she said.
A Teachable Moment is assistant metro editor Tim Lockette’s weekly look at schools and education. Contact Lockette at 256-235-3560.