The Business-Tea Party War Comes to a Critical Conservative Stronghold: Education

On Sunday, ads paid for by the Chamber of Commerce will begin airing on Fox News and other conservative outlets, championing the "Common Core" curriculum loathed by hard-right conservatives.

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On Sunday, ads paid for by the Chamber of Commerce will begin airing on Fox News and other conservative outlets, championing the "Common Core" curriculum loathed by hard-right conservatives. It's the latest battle in the business/Tea Party war that began during last year's government shutdown, but has the business community fighting in extremely hostile and heavily defended territory.

Victoria Jackson (AP)

In its report on the advertising push Politico notes that Common Core — a set of proposed guidelines on key benchmarks in math and reading education — has been under fire from conservatives "for months." The Chamber backs the proposal because it's aimed at improving the basic skills of kids coming out of high school. In addition to the TV spots, it will also ask activists to hammer local elected officials — "mostly in deep red states," per Politico —  with emails and calls demanding adoption of the curriculum. And the Chamber is willing to wield its biggest hammer: political donations. The head of the Phoenix, Arizona Chamber said of politicians in his state: "They are going to have to make a choice in terms of which constituency is going to be the most important to them" — Tea Partiers or donors.

The fight over Common Core may only be months old (though it has been a lot of months), but it's also only the tip of the spear. There are a number of specific reasons that activists oppose Common Core, ranging from the rational (concern over suggested texts, for example) to the deranged. (The Wire outlined a number of prominent conspiracy theories in January.) But at its heart the fight is about the education system, not the standards.

Ohio State Rep. Andrew Brenner is the vice-chair of the state's education committee. On Thursday, he came to national attention for a blog post that he wrote at his personal website. Topped with a large image of a red hammer-and-sickle, it is titled, "Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution?"

Socialism, defined on Wikipedia, “is a social and economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy.” That seems to summarize our primary education system.

For decades, public education at all levels has increasingly been treated as an unwelcome government intrusion by conservatives. It encompasses a number of things that the far right hates: mandates, government spending, indoctrination, unions. The "socialism" charge is extreme, particularly coming from an elected official charged with promoting education. But it's merely a wrapper. At Breitbart, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine made a similar case more obliquely: "Common Core (by any name) relinquishes the advantages of the federal system established by the Constitution. Mistakes made by top-down centralized policy affect the whole nation."

The federal role in education is loathed by many conservatives. When the topic comes up, it doesn't take long after that before mention is made of Ronald Reagan's desire to abolish the Department of Education. Reagan eventually dropped the idea, but it had taken root. Ron Paul made it part of his presidential campaigns, a symbol of government overreach, overspending, and oversight.

Homeschooling, by race

Data from the Department of Education

This is linked to the growth in homeschooling among conservatives (and America at large). Breitbart celebrated that homeschooling is growing seven times faster than public school enrollment — a function of the scale of each, but still suggestive. The staunchly conservative Family Research Council asked if homeschooling was "the next revolution in education" — returning control of education to parents. (If you're interested, Ron Paul is developing a curriculum of his own.)

Barring educating kids at home, conservatives have also focused on disrupting the public school system. Earlier this year, a presentation from a chapter of Americans for Prosperity outlined how the group planned to fight for "School Choice For All." "Ideally," a slide read, "parents will have access to their money with that money following the child to the school/institution of their choice." That includes government money for home schooling, but focuses more broadly on vouchers for private or charter schools. This is by no means only a conservative issue — prominent Democrats, like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have backed increases in charter schools — but it's the main political force in the effort. Former DC schools head Michelle Rhee's reform organization has invested heavily in races supporting conservative politicians who advocate more reform.

One of the reasons conservatives love the fight is that it also disrupts the teachers unions that have successfully organized public education. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built his reputation on battling the state's teachers unions. (By contrast, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has battled against charters and, on Friday, announced a push for a nine-year contract with teachers.)

All of that — the dislike of federal involvement, irritation about unions, the push for more control of kids' education — is deeply intertwined with the opposition to Common Core. The Chamber, in defending the proposal, is wading into that larger fight. Politico quotes one politician in Arizona, State Sen. Al Melvin, who isn't fazed by the Chamber's plan of action: "Frankly, they can rant and rave as much as they want. They’re not going to affect me, and I don’t think they're going to affect any others." Given the success of Tea Party candidates against the establishment, Melvin and others may not be too worried about losing those campaign donations, either.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.