Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
By MATT KIBBE
Posted 5-1-12 06:28 PM ET
After the Tea Party's meteoric rise to prominence in 2009 and 2010, some political observers are asking, "Where did the Tea Party go?"
What they don't realize is that while they weren't looking, the Tea Party changed. It is no longer the highly visible protest movement that took America by storm. Instead, the Tea Party has been using the political clout gained in the 2010 midterm elections to achieve its objectives of free markets and limited government.
Nowhere is the Tea Party's sustained influence clearer than in efforts to promote education reform around the nation.
For the first time in the history of our country, we are seeing a broad-based educational reform effort that is not driven by the unions. Instead, parents and activists are working together on a local level, empowered by the national Tea Party movement, to apply the mechanics of the free market to struggling school systems.
While success has been widespread, efforts made in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania provide some of the clearest examples of the Tea Party in action.
On March 28, the South Carolina House passed H. 4894, allowing tax credits and deductions for donations for privately funded scholarships. A similar bill failed in the House by just one vote in the previous session.
This time around, FreedomWorks joined local activists and Tea Party leaders in their efforts, providing the grass-roots campaign with extra air and ground support needed to pass the bill. After six months, the bill passed by 15 votes — a landslide turnaround — and is now headed for the South Carolina Senate.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal introduced the boldest education reform package ever seen in our nation's history. The legislation overhauls the system using the same model that was successful in post-Katrina New Orleans by providing low-income parents with vouchers that enable them to send their children to the school of their choice.
Jindal's plan also includes tying teacher tenure to good performance, and a system of tax credits that allows businesses to privately sponsor students' education.
On April 4, the Louisiana state Senate voted to pass the voucher expansion bill, HB 976, and the teacher tenure reform bill, HB 974, by margins of 24-15 and 23-16 respectively, sending the legislation to the governor's desk to be signed into law and marking the biggest education reform victory to date.
In Mississippi, Republicans control both state houses for the first time in 136 years. Gov. Phil Bryant, a bold executive leader like Gov. Jindal, has made charter school expansion the centerpiece of his campaign. Charter school legislation SB 2401 recently passed in the Mississippi Senate and failed by a single vote in the state House Education Committee.
But as South Carolina showed, turning a single vote into a bold majority is possible, and well within reach.
In fact, Gov. Bryant has already called for a special session of the legislature in an effort to save the bill, demonstrating a bold example to governors in other states that when education reform gets tough, the true leaders double down while the timid get going.
Heading north, we see the impact that conservative activists have on the 25-year fight for school choice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where efforts to bring student-centered reform to schools have faltered for years.
The Tea Party movement has reinvigorated the cause, working with activists and non-Tea Partyers alike to make more progress over the past two years than was made over the past two decades.
Senate Bill 1 passed the Pennsylvania Senate just before a narrow defeat in the House. This initial bicameral friction hasn't deterred local activists from fighting to free schools from the stranglehold of corrupt union leadership.
Americans are realizing that the lack of competition created by powerful teacher unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association is robbing children of the education they deserve and disenfranchising good teachers. The only solution is increasing competition in the school system. Continuing to line the pockets of union bosses with more and more taxpayer money is a failed and irresponsible approach.
For the most part, conservative parents and activists have won the battles in the state capitol chambers. But we couldn't have done it without the bold commitment to leadership from governors like Bobby Jindal and Phil Bryant.
I can only hope the successes of education reform in Louisiana and Mississippi will start a national trend toward electing and supporting entrepreneurial governors who make education reform a No. 1 priority, not simply cheering from the sidelines.
The Wall Street Journal called 2011 "The Year of School Choice." FreedomWorks, Tea Party activists and our allies in state governments across the nation are not only committed to continuing this trend of success in 2012, but to making the next 100 years the Century of School Choice.
• Kibbe is the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, co-author of "Give Us Liberty: a Tea Party Manifesto" and author of the upcoming book, "Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government's Stranglehold on America."