When you hear Democrats talk about education, they may call it "the civil rights issue of our time," they could tout efforts to "improve education in a state that desperately needed it" and they likely will make the point that "it is unconscionable that the average salary of a lawyer is $79,000 a year and the average salary of a teacher is $39,000 a year."
But you won't find those quotes on whitehouse.gov or democrats.org. They were from the finalists for the Republican nomination in 2008: Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and John McCain. If you've watched any of this year's Republican debates, you know how far the rhetoric and policy has moved from a bipartisan consensus that investing in our children's education is an issue of American competitiveness and moral urgency.
In fact, the discussion of education in the last three Republican debates was effectively limited to which candidate would do more to cut education funding, eliminate quality standards for schools and in some cases, undermine the entire public school system. The candidates' eyes lit up as they repeatedly promised to abolish the Department of Education.
Mitt Romney argued that smaller class sizes make no difference for students. Romney's polling surely told him this was an applause line for the Tea Party because it's hard to believe that the Harvard graduate and investment banker could actually support such a counter-intuitive idea. Romney must have been dying to get in on the Department of Education wrecking crew, but apparently a triple flip would be too much even for the candidate who has alternatively praised the Department of Education and called for it to be abolished.
And while Romney often uses college debt as a campaign talking point, he backs the Republican budget plan that would decimate Pell Grants, critical financial assistance that allows many teenagers to be the first in their family to attend college. Previously, Republicans and Democrats supported the program that provides a chance at the American Dream for children who might have been otherwise unable to afford higher education.
Governor Rick Perry bragged about his Texas-size cuts to education funding and didn't seem bothered by ranking near last in high school graduation rates. Perry made a point to ridicule the widely praised "Race to the Top" program, which makes sense when your education policy appears to be "Race to the Bottom."
The entire premise of the Republican debates was a stark reversal for a party that used to be interested in the competitiveness of American workers and high education standards. For all its substantial flaws, the No Child Left Behind Act was an attempt to increase standards for schools across the country. President Obama's policies like "Race to the Top" were designed around a bipartisan policy consensus that America should do more to reward schools that succeed.
As America's competitors are investing in education, House Republicans passed a budget that would deny millions the ability to attend college. While China is building the world's fastest computer, Romney and all the major Republican presidential candidates endorsed the same budget that would permanently undermine our commitment to scientific research. And, as the U.S. slips to 16th in the world for percent of population with college degrees, Republican candidates took turns demagoguing the DREAM Act, which would provide an incentive for the children of undocumented immigrants to attend college and become productive American citizens.
It's been noted ad nauseam that the Tea Party has moved Republicans to the right on issues like health care, climate change, taxes, and corporate regulations. But on the issue that will literally determine our country's long-term economic future, the Tea Party isn't moving Republicans right or left. They are pushing America off a cliff.