The GOP'S New War on Schools
The rise of Michele Bachmann reflects a shift in the party's education agenda.
The Tea Party has since carried this ideology to national prominence. Many Tea Party-affiliated organizations have embraced the Christian "parental rights" agenda, a natural fit for a movement seeking to drastically shrink government's size. Among congressional freshmen, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Kristi Noem, and Rick Berg campaigned as parental-rights advocates, and they are clearly influencing their lawmaker peers. Veteran Republicans, including one-time moderates Kline, Boehner, Mike Pence, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, are distancing themselves from No Child Left Behind and promoting tax-credits for homeschooling parents.
The same dynamic is sure to play out across the 2012 GOP field. Bachmann's main competition for Tea Party voters, Rick Perry, has made opposition to federal education mandates a centerpiece of his political career. Under his watch as governor, Texas was one of just two states (the other was Alaska) to refuse to even consider adopting the new state-led common core curriculum standards in English and math. Perry also kept Texas out of the Obama administration's Race to the Top education reform grant competition, declaring, "[W]e would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents' participation in their children's education."
It will be interesting to see how Mitt Romney, the man Bachmann or Perry will have to beat to claim the GOP nomination, handles all this. His centrism on school reform is a matter of public record. When he ran for president in 2008, he defended No Child Left Behind, saying similar legislation had worked well in Massachusetts during his time as governor. As recently as February 2010, in a speech before the Conservative Political Action Committee, he outlined a school reform platform largely indistinguishable from that of the Obama administration, supporting higher pay for teachers and more accountability.
But recently, Romney has gone quiet on the issue. His campaign website carefully avoids any mention of education policy, and he hasn't brought it up on the trail. At Thursday night's GOP debate, only Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain were asked about NCLB; Romney got off the hook. But with his party's congressional leaders rushing to the right on school reform—chasing after Bachmann, Palin, and other members of the Tea Party—Romney won't get a free pass for very long. He'll have to either defend his record of support for top-down education standards or perform another obvious and painful flip-flop in his quest to woo the conservative base.
Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute