Following yesterday’s election results in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arkansas, and elsewhere, there is a great deal of buzz about what the latest collections of primary votes in an off-year election year truly mean. The talking heads immediately keyed in on the “power” of President Obama’s support, the strength of the Tea Party movement, and other such harbingers of what is to come.
Such talk also has direct impact on current education improvement efforts. Last fall’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia have had real edu-implications. Just look at New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie has sought to revolutionize school finance efforts, freeze teacher pay, expand charter schools, single-handedly take down the New Jersey Education Association, one of the strongest state teachers’ unions in the nation. As his reward? The NJ legislature provides lukewarm, at best, support for his Phase II Race to the Top application, an application that seems to be strongly in line with what the feds are expecting. This after they gave the strongest of endorsements to a Phase One plan that was a major loser.
If yesterday’s elections told us anything, it is that the anti-government sentiment found in many a Tea Party statement has real strength. Yesterday, the movement may have very well elected a U.S. Senator in Kentucky. And growing frustration with support for federal policies and efforts may very well have brought down the sitting Senator from Arkansas (we will see after the runoff), and may have contributed to the demise of the senior Senator from Pennsylvania in his new-found political party.
So why does this matter? Those of us who worked on the Hill at the time clearly remember the “revolution” of 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America brought down the decades-long rule that Democrats had enjoyed in Congress. At the time, Gingrich promised a much smaller government, less intrusion, and more freedoms. And one of the centerpieces of that agenda was the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education. The thinking here is that education is a local matter. With the feds contributing less than a dime for every dollar spent in K-12, the thinking goes, it is far easier exclude the federal intrusion and let local school boards decide what is taught, what is measured, and what is paid for.
Today we are seeing much of the same rhetoric, particularly coming through the anti-government Tea Party movement. Today, Education Daily (sorry folks, no link to share) has an interesting piece on how several state Republican parties, influenced by Tea Party supporters, are now advocating for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education in their official policy platforms. Cloaking themselves in the 10th Amendment, Republican parties in states like Maine, Texas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Oregon have either officially adopted or are expected to sign on to calls to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
Is this backlash against eight years of No Child Left Behind? Is it frustration that so many states worry that they will be excluded from the riches found in Race or i3? Is it worry of strengthened accountability under ESEA reauthorization? Or is it legitimate concern that public education is a local responsibility? More importantly, is it something we need to worry about?
We all well know that the U.S. Department of Education is going nowhere. Its role is too important, and its scope to large for us to pull back now. But these political rumblings within local Republican parties can have real influence on topics such as reauthorization, particularly when Republicans pick up seats in both the Senate and House this fall. Republican leaders on the Senate HELP Committee or the House Education and Labor Committee don’t want to anger their core constituencies back home, and those constituencies are only gaining more attention and strength by the month.
For reauthorization, that likely means greater scrutiny of plans, particularly when it comes to expanding Race, replacing AYP, adopting Common Core Standards, and all of the other goodies found in ED’s official ESEA blueprint. If you couldn’t get some of these reforms through in 2007 and 2008, when Dems and GOPers were looking to deal on reauthorization, and you couldn’t get it through in 2009 and 2010 when Dems have the strongest majorities we’ve seen in quite a while, do we really see expansion of the federal education role in 2011 and 2012, when we could have razor-thin majorities and stronger anti-government sentiment?