Feds’ role in schools re-emerges as 2012 issue

Duncan pushes back as Republican hopefuls target federal department

Republican presidential candidates are increasingly using the federal Department of Education as a punching bag, citing it as yet another example of big government’s heavy hand in local affairs.

But this time, the Education Department is punching back.

In what could be a preview of things to come, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Education Secretary Arne Duncan traded harsh words last week and helped push education and the federal government’s role in it from its usual spot on the back burner to the spotlight of presidential politics.

During an Aug. 15 campaign stop in Iowa, Mr. Perry said he doesn’t “think the federal government has a role in education.” A few days later, Mr. Duncan shot back, telling the Bloomberg news agency he feels “very, very badly” for the students of Texas, a rare example of the education secretary using his pulpit to take political shots at Republicans.

As the 2012 campaign heats up, analysts think those types of exchanges could become more common and think that education policy could play a much greater role than in recent elections.

Some Republicans are forcing the issue to the forefront by resurrecting a plank of the party platform buried for the past decade: abolish the Department of Education.

“In the last couple of presidential races, education did not come to the forefront as a major issue … but the Republicans have just come off two years of attacking President Obama on health care. [Education] will fit their theme by saying this is another area where Obama wants the federal government to be too active,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, a D.C.-based advocacy group. Mr. Jennings is also former general counsel for the House Education Committee.

Education “is traditionally more of an issue that is discussed, but it doesn’t reach the top tier. This time, it’s possible that it can, because there seems to be more of a clear difference between the parties,” he said.

Mr. Perry isn’t the only candidate to put the Education Department in his political cross hairs. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican and tea party favorite, has made similar calls to end the federal government’s control over schools. Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, supports shuttering the department.

In 2010, Republicans such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah called for eliminating the department during their successful Senate campaigns.

Just 15 years ago, the party’s platform called for an end to the federal role in education. That began to change with the campaign of George W. Bush, who in his first major initiative as president joined such liberal Democrats as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to implement No Child Left Behind, a sweeping education-policy overhaul with heavy federal involvement

By 2008, the Republican platform merely called for “a review of Department of Education programs and administration to identify and eliminate ineffective programs, to respect the role of the states and to better meet state needs.”

Analysts think Republicans are returning to the pre-Bush administration platform for two reasons: first, they see gutting the Education Department or eliminating it altogether as a reasonable way to slash billions of dollars from the budget at a time of exploding national debt.

Second, conservatives lump the department in with health care reform, increased environmental regulations and other Obama administration steps to vastly expand federal power, said Mark Rom, associate professor at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.

“The attack on education falls in with a whole wish list of the tea party to make the federal government as small and inconsequential as possible,” he said. “It’s no special hatred of education.”

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