Tea party Republicans want to ax the Education Department, and Democrats are encouraging voters to question their common sense, running TV ads warning of unmanageable class sizes and rising property taxes.
It's an election perennial. Since the department was created in 1979, Republicans have had it on their hit list. The campaign rhetoric, moreover, is wholly removed from reality in Washington, where policymakers have been negotiating for three years to revise the No Child Left Behind law, which sets standards for schools.
"Those who call for abolishing the Department of Education, that's simply not going to get done," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who is in line to chair the Education and Labor Committee if the GOP wins control of the House.
Kline knows he will have to contend next year with a crop of scrappy new committee members who might not want to delve into the specifics of student testing or curriculum standards, but he has an answer. "It's not simply enough to say, 'I'm only going to vote for abolishing the Department of Education,' " he told National Journal in an interview. "No Child Left Behind is the law. It's moving forward."
Congress has to reauthorize the law no matter what happens on Election Day, Kline said, but he acknowledged that "there is going to be some heavy lifting" to enact substantive education policy in an increasingly divided House and Senate. Other observers say that the chances of success are minimal, at best.
The tit for tat over the Education Department doesn't resonate with congressional staffers -- Republican and Democrat -- who meet for hours every week to discuss how to rework federal education standards. Among their top concerns is the law's 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in reading and math.
Kline says that the law is too prescriptive. "On my side of the aisle, there will be a move to push some of that federal intrusion back," he said, "some of the federal government telling superintendents what to do."
For Democrats, education makes a good political talking point. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Education Association have seized on calls from more than 30 Republican candidates to nix the Education Department. "It's playing in a big way on the election trail," DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.
"This is one of those issues that to some political pundits may not seem like a big deal, but for a lot of middle-class voters, it really is. It really does stick out," Rudominer said. "Calling for eliminating the Department of Education, it also just sort of symbolizes just how extreme these people are."
The idea doesn't sound especially shocking to Republicans, however. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for axing the department back in the mid-1990s, and several members of President Reagan's administration also questioned its usefulness.
This year's GOP candidates are resurrecting the issue. "I believe the best ideas on education come from places like Deatsville and Dothan, not from Washington," said Martha Roby, a Republican House candidate in Alabama, in response to a DCCC attack ad on education. Roby is challenging Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright, a self-proclaimed "independent" in his first term who frequently doesn't vote with his party.
Comments like Roby's show Republicans' dissatisfaction, fair or not, with an activist federal government, according to Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "To say, 'That sounds crazy for Republicans to talk this way' -- I'm not so sure," he said.
For conservative Democrats, supporting a federal role in education is one of the few ways they can distinguish themselves from their Republican opponents. Bright brags to constituents that he voted against the health care bill and economic-stimulus spending and that he doesn't support the size of the federal budget. But the Education Department "plays a vital role in educating our children," he said. "I cannot understand why any candidate would advocate for eliminating the Department of Education."
After the election chatter fades away, the broad philosophical debate about Washington's role in education may be increasingly overshadowed by the scrimmage over money. It was school funding that prompted the National Education Association to play a more-active role in individual races this year than it did during the 2006 midterm elections, according to political director Karen White. The teachers union is backing candidates who "support funding-they support getting students different types of help that they need," she said.
The NEA is running a $15 million campaign for school-friendly candidates, but in Virginia it is also running an ad against Republican House candidate Robert Hurt, who is challenging Rep. Tom Perriello. The Democrat isn't a major congressional player on education, but he passes muster on the basics. He voted to boost teacher funding this summer and he has ranked reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law as a top priority.
Perriello can use all the help he can get. He is a moderate Democrat in his first term who is considered most likely to be flunked out of Congress on November 2.
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