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Reading the Tea Leaves on Mike Castle's Defeat in Delaware

In Tuesday's biggest surprise, Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell shocked heavy favorite Mike Castle in the GOP primary, beating the nine-term representative, former governor, and former lieutenant governor by about six points. The result put an exclamation mark on a series of Tea Party primary wins in Nevada, Kentucky, Alaska, Utah, and Colorado.

When it comes to schooling, the impact of this primary season is not yet well understood. Some, like Secretary Duncan, seem inclined to presume that K-12 bipartisanship will breezily return after November's election. Indeed, Duncan is in good company, as seasoned Washington hands trust that any Tea Partiers who survive November will learn the ropes soon enough. Former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott observed in July, "As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them."

My take: anyone expecting that Republicans elected in 2010, Tea Partiers or no, are going to cheerfully wade into NCLB (nee ESEA) reauthorization, a push to extend Race to the Top, or the President's plans for community colleges may be in for a rude surprise.

For instance, my good pal Mike Petrilli has been arguing that energized conservatives and a more NEA-dominated Democratic caucus will happily move on the administration's ESEA "blueprint"--embracing its gutting of NCLB accountability and targeting only a small number of the worst-performing schools. Yesterday, he told Ed Week's Alyson Klein, "I'm optimistic about a bill in 2011... I do suspect there will be an interest in finding a few issues where they can find some common ground."

I think Mike is misreading the tea leaves. I don't think 2010 Republicans are going to want to touch any bill associated with NCLB or federal efforts in schooling, whether or not the wonks regard it as dialing back federal micromanagement. I don't think they're going to want to grow, or even maintain, the spending levels in the manner required to do a deal with NEA Dems. And I don't think Duncan's team is going to settle for a bill which conservatives could get excited about--one which simply strips NCLB down to its ESEA plus testing skivvies, cuts back funding, and slashes categorical requirements.

After all, the primary education talking point for Tea Partiers is abolishing the Department of Education. They're not running to reform schools; they're running to tame Washington and reduce spending.

It's easy for enthusiasts of edu-bipartisanship to forget that the famed bipartisanship was more a feature of the pre-NCLB era. That tradition hasn't been put to a strong test since. Meanwhile, lots of conservatives felt hoodwinked by the Bush administration on NCLB--with Senator Jim DeMint and Congressman Pete Hoekstra eventually rallying scores of colleagues in an effort to undo the statute.

It's not just about the 2010 Republicans. Rather, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus observed this week, prospects for "a more robust cadre of moderate Republicans" are diminishing while it's becoming more "plausible to envision a bolstered Jim DeMint caucus" in the Senate. Second, she noted the ripple effect of victories such as O'Donnell's when Republican incumbents look at the primary results and think: "There but for the grace of the Tea Party go I." Marcus predicted, "[Republican members] will be that much more watchful of protecting their right flank... [and] that much less likely to take a political risk in the direction of bipartisanship."

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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