The A+ Education Partnership (formerly A+ Education Foundation), based in Montgomery, Montgomery County, has been an important fixture in Alabama education policymaking since 1991, seeking to improve public K–12 education and address inequities in the system. As of its founding, the organization’s operational methods have changed from mobilizing educators and citizens to mounting high-profile advocacy campaigns. A+ also works with policymakers such as the governor, the State Department of Education, and legislators, as well as directly with educators and business and other community leaders.
A+ Education Partnership A+’s genesis resulted from discussions among participants in the 1990-91 class of Leadership Alabama about improving education quality to address unequal educational opportunities for Alabama students. The demand for better schools was becoming increasingly urgent because of economic shifts, with knowledge-based businesses and industries requiring a more highly trained and educated workforce. During these seminars, participants learned of positive strides made in education policy in the 1970s and 1980s in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. A number of attendees, including Ruth Ash, Bradley Byrne, Mary Jane Caylor, Joseph Morton, Caroline Novak, and Bill Smith, became committed to fostering similar educational progress in Alabama. Each of these individuals contributed much to this policy arena. After a stint as a local superintendent, Morton served as Assistant Alabama Superintendent of Education and became State Superintendent in 2004. Ash, after long service as Dean of the School of Education at Samford University, became Assistant State Superintendent under Morton. Caylor served on the Alabama Board of Education as did Byrne, who moved to the Alabama Senate in 2002 representing Baldwin County. In 2007, Byrne was named Chancellor of the Office of Postsecondary Education, which has jurisdiction over the community college system in the state, and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. Novak serves as the A+ Partnership’s president and has the day-to-day responsibility for its operation. Arguably, the key person in the establishment of A+ was Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of Birmingham-based Royal Cup Coffee, which provided critical start-up funds for the organization. Smith was also crucial in soliciting financial support from other major Alabama corporations and businesses as well.
Over its history, A+ has been able to secure major funding commitments from a marquee group of Alabama-based corporations and other corporations that have a major presence in the state. Among the important contributors to A+ have been the Alabama Power Foundation; all of the major Birmingham-based banks, including AmSouth (now merged with Regions), Compass, Regions, and SouthTrust (now merged into Wachovia); BellSouth Alabama (later to join AT&T); and large multinational corporations such as Boeing, IBM, and TRW. In recent years, corporate and corporate-affiliated foundations have contributed the bulk of the organization’s funding, which ranges from $750,000 to nearly $1 million annually.
The A+ Partnership is governed by a 14-member board of directors consisting of corporate leaders, education administrators, educators, and other individuals who subscribe to its goals. Turnover on the board is very low, giving the organization great stability over its history. To gain input from a larger number of individuals who are interested in promoting educational quality in Alabama, the organization has formed the A+ Council for Education Excellence as an advisory group to the governing board and the staff. The seven-member staff of A+ has also been remarkably stable as well over the course of its history.
One of A+’s major initiatives was establishing the Alabama Best Practices Center in 1999, which began with a grant from the BellSouth Foundation and the Alabama legislature. In recent years, key supporters of the activity have been Wachovia and Microsoft. The primary purpose of the center is to help interested educators with professional development. Approximately 250 geographically and demographically diverse schools from throughout the state participate in its activities. The center, since its establishment, has held quarterly workshops on a variety of leading-edge and innovative instructional topics.
As is the case with many organizations seeking public policy change, A+’s techniques have evolved over time. In its early years, it proposed sweeping revisions in Alabama’s schools and attempted to implement those changes through high-profile grassroots efforts. Currently, A+ works directly with educators, education administrators, and public officials such as the governor, legislators, and school boards. A+ has evolved to become a source of non-biased information for education improvement. As well, much of its effort facilitates the work of the Governor’s Commission on Teaching Quality. Specific programs that A+ has promoted recently are the Alabama Reading Initiative; the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative; ACCESS distance learning opportunities; and Advanced Placement courses.
Computer Science Education Summit In recent years, A+ has begun collaborating on two other efforts. The Alabama School Readiness Alliance is a coalition working to expand state-funded, high-quality prekindergarten. Other partners are VOICES for Alabama’s Children, Alabama Giving, and the Alabama Partnership for Children. The “Yes We Can! Alabama” initiative helps communities work in partnership with their local schools to increase the number of high school graduates who are ready for work and college. “Yes We Can! Alabama” is a collaboration of A+, Leadership Alabama, the Mobile Area Education Foundation, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, and other organizations focusing on workforce development in Alabama.
A+ College Ready, the organization’s newest division, was formed in 2007 when Alabama received one of six $13.2 million grants from the National Math and Science Initiative to replicate a training and incentive program from Texas. A+ College Ready provides teacher training and financial incentives to teachers and students in an effort to increase the numbers of students succeeding on Advanced Placement exams. Key leadership involved in launching the initiative included the governor, the State Superintendent of Education, the Alabama Power Foundation, and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Education Coalition.
The A+ Partnership is also affiliated with regional and national organizations whose primary objective is education reform and improvement. Regionally, A+ is affiliated with an eight-state southern consortium of business-backed organizations called the Columbia Group. Nationally, it is affiliated with the Business Roundtable, which advocates for improved education performance to increase U.S. workforce competitiveness. A+ also networks with The Education Trust, whose primary objective is to promote educational opportunity.
The challenge of improving public education to meet the workforce needs of a growing number of knowledge-based industries in Alabama is a daunting one, as the pool of school-age children in public schools is coming from increasingly poorer and underprivileged backgrounds as a result of the growth of tuition-based private schools and home schooling. A+’s objective is to communicate this urgency through newsletters, workshops, and face-to-face meetings with decision makers in the state who can make a difference.
Among the public at large, the A+ Partnership has a relatively low profile. As an organization that has learned to work the corridors of power, however, it has a significant impact on state education policy and the introduction of progressive teaching methods in Alabama’s K–12 classrooms. The prominence of its founding members within the state’s public education structure has been a major factor in A+’s influence on public education in Alabama. Also key to A+’s long-term success is its solid support from leading Alabama corporations. With 20 or more major corporations committed to making annual contributions and grants, totaling nearly $1 million annually, A+ should be able to sustain its efforts long into the future and remain a major player in formulation and development of education policy in Alabama.