Norton wins over Tea Partiers with call to eliminate Department of Education

Former Lt. Governor Jane Norton said she was spurred to try to win Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet’s U.S. Senate seat by what she sees as the dramatic expansion of government in the Obama era. In stump speeches, emails and interviews, she has vowed to work to cut federal spending as a way to end the “government takeover” of the private sector. One of the ways Norton proposes to trim spending is to eliminate the federal Department of Education. That dramatic proposal has predictably shocked members of the left-leaning Colorado politics-blogosphere, but it also surprised at least one conservative member of the small crowd gathered two weeks ago at the Lamplighter restaurant in Alamosa, where Norton reportedly first unveiled the proposal.

Jane Norton
Jane Norton

Randall Smith, an Alamosa Tea Party organizer, reported the comment at his conservative Perlstalker’s Ramblings blog. Smith told the Colorado Independent that he went to the Lamplighter event to hear Norton’s ideas “straight from the horse’s mouth.” He said he liked what he was hearing from her that night and that, as he recalls, her comments on the Department of Education came unprompted as part of a larger discussion.

“We were talking about what spawned the excessive size of government… and part of that discussion was on how to cut spending.”

Smith’s account as it appears at his blog:

There were fifteen or so people where when I arrived (I was a few minutes late), most of whom I recognized from the local Republican party and my Tea Parties. We met around a couple of tables and had a very frank and open discussion…

Mrs. Norton said all the right things regarding small government, low spending and low taxes. One thing I found especially interesting was that she felt that the federal Department of Education was part of the bloat that should be cut. Completely. It was her opinion that individual states should be responsible for education in the state and the federal government should stay out of it.

In using the word “cut,” Smith is sure Norton didn’t mean merely trimming the size of the department. She was definitely proposing to eliminate the department, he said.

“I stand by the version that I wrote the day after the event,” he said. “She was talking about [education] as not a federal responsibility, but as a state responsibility.”

Tea in Alamosa

Although she is the clear frontrunner in the race to unseat Bennet, Norton has not been the top choice among conservative grassroots voters in the state– a bloc of voters being increasingly influenced by the anti-tax anti-establishment Tea Party movement here. For that reason, events like the one at the Lamplighter may be much more attractive to the Norton campaign than the small number of attendees might suggest. Blogger and Tea Party organizer Randy Smith is exactly the kind of local opinion leader Norton would like to win enthusiastic support from to shore up the conservative base in the state while downplaying her deep establishment connections.

As is common knowledge among active conservative voters, Norton was a main backer of the unpopular McCain campaign in Colorado last year. Mitt Romney trounced the Arizona Republican in the caucus here, pulling down 60 percent of the votes to McCain’s 18 percent. When Norton first announced her candidacy, former GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and others lambasted her as McCain’s pick, repeating the fact-– and forcing Norton to admit it to the media-– that she had consulted by phone with McCain before deciding to run.

In addition to general distaste in the state for McCain’s brand of conservatism, right-wing analysts here see the national party as suffering from a rejection of true grassroots candidacies. Norton is considered a prime example.

Chairman John Cornyn’s National Republican Senatorial Committee was seen to be meddling when in August, weeks before Norton declared her candidacy, it purchased internet domain names for her campaign, a story broke by conservative site Complete Colorado.

Ben DeGrow, a policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, was all over the report at his Mount Virtus blog, lamenting it as a sure sign that the premature national party “candidate coronation process” was already underway, a process he said has deflated local power and has ended in a string of GOP defeats.

So the question rising from the night at the Lamplighter is one not only the Colorado left blogosphere is interested in asking: Is Norton serious about eliminating the Department of Education or was she merely playing the small crowd for effect, safe beyond the gaze of Denver media?

A ‘return to balance’

Norton Campaign Manager Norm Cummings said he didn’t know the context, whether Norton was responding to questions from the crowd at the Lamplighter. But he says the comment fits with Norton’s belief that local control of the schools is best.

“She believes state and local control is better than having them taken over by the federal government… She supports a return to a balance that has state and local jurisdictions as preeminent, empowering parents rather than bureaucrats,” he told the Colorado independent.

The idea is not that radical, he said.

“Federal involvement in education is a matter of legislation, so now it’s a matter of rebalancing… States have rights under the Constitution. We got to this point through intrusive government… [through] rolling federal intrusions, just as we’re seeing in health care and with the Detroit automakers.”

Cummings said Norton supports charter schools and increased choice for parents. He didn’t offer specifics on her plan to eliminate the Department of Education.

“She would support continuing the D.C. voucher program, for example,” he said.

‘Justifying inertia’

In many ears, Norton’s proposal will have the ring of a false political proposal, one designed perhaps more to attract constituent votes than to be passed as law. After all, U.S. school reform is presently drawing some of the best minds in the nation– and some of the most prominent ideas surfacing run counter to the Norton proposal.

A study released in October on reforming Colorado Education undertaken by the Center for Education Policy in consultation with six top national experts on teacher effectiveness, argued that calls for increased local control tend to be a distraction and end up serving as an excuse to “justify inertia” in the drive to improve schools.

The report finds that state control is best when it leans strongly on federal student and teacher guidelines, for example.

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