CINCINNATI -- When WCPO.com reached Tom Brinkman, he had just finished working on a campaign radio spot. Not unusual in campaign season, except that Brinkman, the incumbent state representative from Ohio’s 27th House District, is fending off a challenge in Tuesday’s primary from within GOP ranks -- and from one of his former staunch supporters.
Heidi Huber says Brinkman has been ineffective since his 2014 election to the Ohio House, particularly on the issue she’s most passionate about: taking Common Core out of the state’s schools.
It’s an ironic position for Brinkman to be in, because it echoes arguments Brinkman made in unseating his predecessor, Peter Stautberg, in 2014’s Republican primary race for the seat. (The 27th District, which comprises Cincinnati’s southeast neighborhoods and suburban eastern Hamilton County, including Anderson Township, Indian Hill, Newtown and Terrace Park, is among the state’s most conservative. The Republican nominee is nearly guaranteed victory in November.)
Of the challenge, Brinkman said, “Well, you know, I believe in the American system. I believe in competition.”
Still, he said, “I never thought someone would run from the right of me.”
For Huber, though, it’s not a question of left or right, but of performance.
“This is performance-related, not personal,” she said. “The idea that you have people you made promises to and that you effectively do nothing once you arrive is ridiculous.”
Her frustration is focused particularly on the effort to repeal Common Core, the set of school standards in literacy and math adopted by Ohio and 41 other U.S. states. Huber called the initiative “the fundamental transformation of the classroom. It’s the federal takeover of the classroom and our curriculum. It destroys our teachers.”
Because of Common Core, she said, far too much time and energy in school systems are taken up by testing and test preparation. It’s the capstone to an agenda from entrenched interests to corporatize the nation’s education systems, she said.
Her grassroots crusade against the Common Core standards led her to found Ohioans Against Common Core, a single-issue advocacy group.
Common Core’s emphasis on testing and compiling data on students is stifling education from both the learning and teaching perspectives, she said. “K-12 is your next generation of consumers and citizens. It can’t be corporatized. It’s 50 million clients, not 50 million Doritos buyers.”
What’s surprising about Huber’s criticism is that Brinkman’s position is nearly identical and that he is running in large part as a champion in the fight against Common Core. He’s co-sponsored three bills related to it; one, HB 7, was signed nearly a year ago by Gov. John Kasich. That bill prohibits schools from using state assessment test scores when determining a student’s advancement to the next grade, and it prohibits schools from sharing individual student test scores to outside sources without family consent.
The bills don’t go far enough, Huber believes, and they show that Brinkman doesn’t know how to push successfully for what he — and his constituents — believe in. Further, she said, Brinkman relied on her expertise in the measures.
“I authored those bills,” she said.
Brinkman acknowledges Huber's help in advancing their shared cause.
“She was very good at educating people on Common Core, and she was very involved in that legislation. She was influential, and she had an impact,” Brinkman said.
He called her assertion of authorship an election-year exaggeration.
While Brinkman is sympathetic to Huber’s frustration, he said her decision to run against him shows her inexperience, even naïveté, with the legislative process. “She's frustrated, and I get that. She's frustrated with the pace of reform.”
He’s in his second term representing the 27th District, and under different district boundaries he served four terms until leaving the Ohio House in 2008 because of term limits. In that time, he built a reputation as an arch-conservative who staunchly opposes abortion and taxes.
He, too, believes Common Core has a social agenda: to address income inequality by removing parents from the equation. Both Brinkman and Huber stressed that parents are the people who should be most involved in their children’s education.
“What people don't realize is that we didn't get into this overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight,” Brinkman said. “It’s always caused by a lot of little missteps.”
Most crucially, he said, Huber doesn’t appreciate that Common Core isn’t necessarily the most important issue for many representatives. In the current legislative session, for example, he said most work in the first two months was focused on toxic algae blooms, a response to the 2014 crisis that left half a million northwest Ohioans without safe water.
“Sometimes I have to work on things that don't affect my folks, my constituents. I think there's a lack of appreciation, of understanding that’s the case,” he said. “I might be just a better well-rounded legislator because I know there are other issues we have to deal with.”
Brinkman noted that only 2 percent of Ohio students chose to opt out of Common Core testing. He compared that to some New York districts that already have opt-out rates above 20 percent.
He said further education on the issue would spur opt-out rates to rise to a critical mass that would doom Common Core. “That’s what’s going to bring Common Core to its collapse,” he said.
The process will take time, though, he said, “and (Huber’s) election over me isn't going to change the pace of reform in Ohio or in the country. Until the outrage grows, we have to keep preaching local control.”
In the meantime, he said school district leaders have told him they just want to get the funding that will let them do their work.
“To them, Common Core is a fad that will blow over,” Brinkman said.
Further, he said the education initiative is not yet a driving issue to many of his constituents.
“When I meet people, what they talk to me about is low taxes, right to life, the NRA and Obamacare expansion. Then maybe Common Core comes up,” he said.
To Huber, that give-it-time approach means Brinkman is “comfortable with the status quo.”
“It’s quintessential establishment politics," Huber said. "The interests of Columbus and the establishment party are being represented now, and he's happy to go along with that.”
Ohio school funding has nearly doubled, she said, “and we still have a crisis.” She believes a return to local control also will bring fiscal solvency.
Despite the focus on education, Huber bristled at being characterized as a one-issue candidate.
“I’m an unusual candidate in that I’ve come from the trenches,” she said. “I’ve been involved in several very conservative causes from the grassroots level.”
She cited work on the so-called Health Care Freedom Amendment and repeal of the estate tax as examples.
Huber also criticized Brinkman’s attendance record in Columbus, saying he attended only about two-fifths of meetings of the committees to which he’s assigned.
“I would prefer you not vote if you’re going to be that misinformed," she said. "Most of the work gets done in committees.”
Brinkman disagreed about the importance of those committees.
“That’s not where all the action occurs,” Brinkman said, “and it’s naïve to think that’s where all the work is done.”
As an example, he said the Public Utilities Committee, one of three on which he serves, met nine times in 2015. No bill was sent to the committee for a report.
He said he tries to get input and evidence from sources — like local groups and governments — outside Columbus. Further, if he must miss testimony at a committee meeting — “sometimes meetings do conflict,” he said — all testimony is available online through the Gongwer News Service.
He reiterated that he has voted about 2,000 times in Columbus and missed no votes on legislation.
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