JACKSON — How large a role should the federal government have in educating American children? It’s a politically sensitive question dividing the Republicans in Mississippi’s U.S. Senate race this year.
Incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel are competing in the June 3 primary. Both men criticize Common Core academic standards, which have been adopted by Mississippi and most other states and outline what children should be learning in reading and math at each grade level. Both men say education policy should be set at the state and local level, not by the federal government.
The candidates differ significantly on federal funding for education.
Cochran was elected to the Senate in 1978, after six years in the House. His Senate website says he is “a member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds federal education and health programs, is dedicated to ensuring that federal resources are available to address the chronic health needs of the poor in Mississippi and to advance medical research at the state’s universities.”
McDaniel, elected to the state Senate in 2007, asserts the federal government should have no role in education — not even in helping pay for it.
“The word ‘education’ is not in the Constitution. Because the word is not in the Constitution, it’s none of their business,” McDaniel said during an April 10 campaign event. “The Department of Education is not constitutional.”
He was talking about the U.S. Constitution and the federal Department of Education. His line drew applause from about 100 people at the state Agriculture Museum in Jackson, including several Mississippi Tea Party members.
Cochran’s campaign did not make the senator available for an interview with The Associated Press this past week. However, campaign spokesman Jordan Russell criticized McDaniel’s words.
State records show that for the current budget year, Mississippi is spending about $3.3 billion on elementary and secondary education. Roughly $800 million of that, or 25 percent, is federal money.
“The idea of leaving $800 million of federal education money on the table strikes me as pretty ridiculous,” Russell said.
Mississippi has long been one of the poorest states in the nation, and it gets back significantly more in federal tax dollars than it pays.
The state has some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country. Legislators in 1997 enacted the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to ensure schools receive enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. However, the formula has been fully funded only twice, both times during state election years.
In a telephone interview the day after his Ag Museum event, McDaniel said he supports education, just not federal involvement in it.
“Invariably, somebody will try to twist this as me being anti-education,” McDaniel told the AP.
He said if the federal department were eliminated, state and local governments could handle education funding on their own.
Would Mississippi be able to handle the loss of federal money?
“I think Mississippi, if it’s allowed to keep more of its tax revenue, could offset those losses,” McDaniel said.
The federal government has had an education agency of some type since 1867, according to the U.S. Department of Education website. Records show Cochran was among the senators who voted in 1979 to create the department as a Cabinet-level agency, splitting it off from what had been the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
The 1980 Republican Party platform said the GOP “supports deregulation by the federal government of public education” and “encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.” But efforts to dismantle the department have never gained traction in Congress.