The GOP’S New War on Schools

The rise of Michele Bachmann reflects a shift in the party’s education agenda.

Michele Bachmann at Big Lake Michigan Middle School

Michele Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa straw poll Saturday represents many obvious things: the mainstreaming of the Tea Party, the overnight ordinariness of female presidential candidates, the increasing irrelevance of also-ran moderates like Jon Huntsman. But her growing popularity among the Republican base also signals something that’s been less widely acknowledged: a sea change in the party’s education agenda. It’s safe to say that the political era of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind is now officially over, even as the law’s testing mandates continue to reverberate in classrooms across the country.

As recently as a decade ago, Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain, and John Boehner embraced bipartisan, standards-and-accountability education reform as a pro-business venture, a way to make American workers and firms more competitive in the global marketplace. Now we are seeing the GOP acquiesce to the anti-government, Christian-right view of education epitomized by Bachmann, in which public schools are regarded not as engines for economic growth or academic achievement, but as potential moral corrupters of the nation’s youth.

Against a backdrop of Tea Party calls to abolish the Department of Education and drastically cut the federal government’s role in local public schools, Rep. John Kline, the moderate chairman of the House education and workforce committee, has refused to engage in productive negotiations with the Obama administration on how to update and reauthorize the troubled No Child Left Behind law. If it is not rewritten to emphasize academic growth instead of raw test score goals, up to 80 percent of American schools could be labeled “failing” this school year, because less than 100 percent of their native-born American students have reached “proficiency” on reading and math tests. But with no Republican partners emerging from the partisan morass to work on the legislation, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week that his department would sidestep Congress, allowing states to ignore NCLB’s test-score targets if they pursue school reform in other ways, such as tying teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement data.

Bachmann stands at the forefront of the GOP’s shifting allegiances on education. Like many female elected officials before her, she first got involved in politics as a mother concerned about local public schools. (Though Bachmann home-schooled her biological children, the family’s 23 foster children attended public schools.) As Ryan Lizza described in his recent New Yorker profile, in 1993, Bachmann, then an IRS-lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, co-founded a charter school whose curriculum was built around evangelical Christian themes such as creationism. Several years later, she went on to run unsuccessfully for the Stillwater, Minn., school board as one member of a five-person Christian conservative block. The group campaigned on the expected culture war issues, such as abstinence-only sex education, but also on a more esoteric platform: opposition to state education standards and to federal vocational education programs.

As her political career advanced, the overarching theme of Bachmann’s education activism was that government attempts to improve schools threatened the prerogatives of the Christian family and represented a dangerous move toward a socialized, planned economy.  In 2001, she charged that the 1994 federal School to Work Opportunities Act, which provided funding for low-income teenagers to do on-the-job apprenticeships with local companies, would turn students into “human resources for a centrally planned economy.” As a state senator in 2002, Bachmann produced a bizarre film called Guinea Pigs II, which compared Minnesota’s Profile of Learning curriculum standards—instituted in 1998 by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson—to Nazism and communism. As Tim Murphy of Mother Jones wrote of Bachmann last week, “She was Tea Party before the Tea party was cool. In 2002, with a Republican president in the White House and the Tea Party a full seven years away, she cited the 9th and 10th amendments while railing against No Child Left Behind as an unconstitutional abuse of power.”

Bachmann wasn’t the only Christian conservative local politician making these anti-education reform arguments in the 1990s. Rather, from the beginning of her activist career, she was part of a national “parental rights” movement organized by groups such as Focus on the Family and the Homeschool Legal Defense Fund. Like Bachmann, Sarah Palin was a foot soldier in this movement. According to an account local political activist Phillip Munger gave Salon, as mayor of Wasilla, Palin promoted a group of Christian right school board candidates. She also explored the possibility of banning “offensive” books from the town’s public library.

These Christian right organizations lobbied against curriculum standards and state and federal regulation of home-schoolers, and recruited thousands of school board candidates—many of them churchgoing moms like Bachmann—in an attempt to wield influence over curricula and textbooks. The movement paid special attention to how public schools dealt with issues such as homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, but also sought to promote an uber-nationalist view of American history, in which the evils of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans were downplayed or sometimes totally whitewashed. (For more on the curriculum wars of the 1990s, see Sara Diamond’s masterful Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right.)

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.