Duncan vs. Perry

The gloves are off. What vestiges remained of bipartisanship on education in Washington has been buried. And education may yet turn into a major issue in the 2012 presidential race.

All this in the wake of Rick Perry’s recent entry into that race. Though the Governor has not (yet) put education on his campaign agenda—it is not, for example, one of the four issues highlighted on his new Perry for President website—he has, on multiple occasions, depicted Texas as an independent-minded model of educational progress. Everyone knows that he wanted no part of Race to the Top or of the Common Core standards. Nor is it any secret that he thinks the federal government should butt out of just about everything. Or that he has many bones to pick with higher education in the Lone Star State and beyond.

Last week Arne Duncan, usually a nonpolitical sort of guy, went after Perry, six-guns blazing, regarding the Texas education record. And the retaliation against Duncan’s attack has been swift and aggressive.

Perry’s folks have already responded to Duncan, as have many others (from within Texas and without). More such jousting will continue and probably intensify. But this issue isn’t just a Perry-Duncan (or even a Perry-Obama) thing. Shrinking the role of government—every government—in education is one of Michele Bachmann’s favorite themes. (Though she doesn’t yet have it on her website, either.) And it will end up being part of the policy arsenal of every GOP candidate.

Until late last week, however, I thought education would itself play a minor role in the 2012 election, as in 2008, partly because other issues loom larger but also because Duncan and Obama stole so much of the traditional GOP ed-policy thunder as to leave Republican candidates with little to say that’s fresh or differentiating on this topic. But I didn’t reckon with Perry and Bachmann. And I surely never imagined that Duncan himself would cast the first stone.

Perhaps he was glad to get even with Perry’s denunciations of RTTT. Perhaps Duncan got into stone-hurling mode under White House orders, or perhaps his pellets of attack just slipped out (twice). Perhaps the Texas governor has those in the White House worried. Perhaps they should be.

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