The conservative currents roiling the 2010 midterm election season bring with them a new group of Republican congressional candidates who are outspoken about their desire for a limited federal role in education policy and funding.
For many, the prime target is the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus program passed by Congress in February 2009, which provided some $100 billion for public education.
And in some cases, candidates have taken a page from a decades-old conservative playbook, pushing policies that would strengthen the rights of parents to home-school their children—and even urging the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, a position once favored by President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
“I think that if this wave comes to Washington, it could get quite interesting,” said Gary M. Huggins, the executive director of the Washington-based Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind.
‘Tea Party’ Momentum
Conservative candidates are likely to support policies such as expanding options for parents, and may even find common ground with the Obama administration on proposals such as encouraging the proliferation of high quality charter schools, Mr. Huggins said.
But while these candidates may support challenging, locally set academic standards, it might be trickier to get them behind proposals such as the Obama plan to tie Title I dollars for disadvantaged students to states’ adoption of college- and-career ready academic standards.
Some of these conservative candidates identify with the “tea party” movement, a largely decentralized movement that sprang up in the wake of the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Fund, a rescue plan for Wall Street, and the stimulus program.
Some of the GOP Senate nominees buoyed by that conservative wave—and who in some cases beat back primary candidates who had the support of more-established members of the Republican Party—have called for the elimination of the Education Department and returning control of K-12 policy to states and districts.
They include Republicans Rand Paul in Kentucky, a physician and son of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; and Sharron Angle, in Nevada, a former substitute public school teacher who also taught in a one-room K-12 Christian school.
Such candidates’ “anger at the [Education Department] has a lot to do with the amount of money in the stimulus,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief and the top education adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Their views “put pressure on moderates, for sure, to look seriously at how angry people are,” she added.
But while abolishing the department may make for good campaign rhetoric, she said, such proposals unlikely to go far in Washington.
Ms. Keegan, who has spoken informally to advisers of tea party-backed candidates, said she is hoping that some of the more conservative candidates grow to understand that the Obama administration used the stimulus to advance policies Republicans are likely to embrace, including the overhaul of teacher tenure and evaluation laws, as well as the removal of barriers to opening more public charter schools.
Candidates “might not like the way it happened,” she said. But “it still happened, and that’s progress.”
Disbanding the Department
Still, the campaign rhetoric on education for some of these candidates remains unabashedly conservative.
Ms. Angle, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, said on an earlier version of her now-revised website, “The Department of Education is unconstitutional and should not be involved in education, at any level.”
And she took aim at the No Child Left Behind Act, the version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was signed into law in 2002—and one of Republican President George W. Bush’s proudest domestic accomplishments. “NCLB has burdened classrooms and hamstrung teachers with testing and regulation,” language on the website stated. “The best education is the education that is controlled closest to the local level as possible.”
Mike Lee, the Republican nominee for Utah’s Senate seat—who bested incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett in June’s Republican primary and is heavily favored against Democrat Sam Granato in the general election—also sees a very limited role for the federal government in education policy.
“Congress has no business regulating our nation’s public education system, and has created problems whenever it has attempted to do so,” Mr. Lee says on his campaign website. He has been endorsed by local tea party groups.
Mr. Paul, the Republican nominee for Senate in Kentucky, has called for the elimination of the Education Department, according to local news reports, and has said on his website that “more money, more bureaucracy, and more government intervention are eroding this nation’s educational standards.” Mr. Paul, who is battling Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general, for the open Senate seat, also has said he would strengthen the rights of homeschooling parents and keep the government from regulating home schooling.
In Colorado, a state that put a lot of early energy into competing for a slice of the $4 billion Race to the Top fund, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, one of two Republican contenders facing off in the Aug. 10 primary, has also called for eliminating the Education Department.
“Education funding now goes to bureaucrats in Washington rather than to the classroom,” said Cinamon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Norton campaign. “Send the money directly to the states through block grants—students’ education is best served when it is controlled by local school districts.”
Ms. Norton is vying for the seat currently held by Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat who is said to be closely aligned with the Obama administration on education issues. Mr. Bennet, a former chief of the 75,000-student Denver school district, was appointed to the seat in 2010 and is fending off his own primary challenge from Andrew Romanoff, the Colorado speaker of the house.
Mr. Bennet’s other potential GOP opponent—Ken Buck, a lawyer, who has some backing from local tea party activists—has criticized the high price tag of the ARRA on his campaign website.
“It was such a bad bill that a new word was coined … ‘porkulus,’” he says. “Since it passed, both unemployment and the federal deficit have continued to rise. No new jobs, just huge new debt.”
And in yet another primary battle, Joe Miller, a combat veteran and former judge who is challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a fellow Republican, in Alaska, has also called for disbanding the Education Department.
Republicans, who lost control of both chambers of Congress in 2006, hope to retake the U.S. House of Representatives, which would require them to pick up 40 new members. Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, projects that the GOP could win 32 seats.
Analysts say there is virtually no chance that Republicans will win back their majority in the Senate, but Mr. Sabato is projecting they will gain seven seats, giving the GOP, which currently holds 41, more influence.
To be sure, many of the GOP candidates vying for a Senate seat aren’t nearly as conservative as others. For instance, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, who is considered the frontrunner in the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden, has supported policies such as common standards and has often collaborated with Democrats on K-12 policy.
Vic Klatt, a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee, who is now a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington, said Congress will almost undoubtedly be more conservative after the 2010 election. But he thinks a bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA will ultimately make for better legislation.
Given policy divisions in the Democratic Party, he said, “the only way that Congress will ever be able to pass an ESEA reauthorization that has any reform elements in it all at is for key Republicans and Democrats to work together.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Federal Role on Education in Cross Hairs