HARRISBURG, Pa. » When Tea Party groups celebrated their victories here in November — they had helped take the governor’s office and the Legislature — it seemed that one of their priorities, school choice legislation, would have an easy time passing.
Instead, the bill, which would provide vouchers to poor families who want better schools for their children, has sparked what one Tea Party activist called a "fight within the family."
Tea Party groups that oppose the bill call it a bailout of failing schools. They accuse those who support it — who are backed by a powerful Washington group that has helped cultivate the Tea Party — of selling out to the kind of politics-as-usual approach that the movement was founded to oppose. Supporters say the opponents fail to understand that politics often means compromise.
The disagreement resonates beyond the local particulars. It offers a microcosm of the Tea Party’s struggle as it tries to turn the potency it showed in the midterm elections into influence in legislative battles and the 2012 presidential campaign. Having been brought together primarily by what they oppose, Tea Party groups have had difficulty agreeing on what they stand for. Just saying "Tea Party" strikes fear in many Republicans in Washington and state capitols. But in practice, the Tea Party is often fractious and undefined.
In Tennessee, a split between Tea Party groups forced legislators to scale back antiterrorism legislation that toughened state penalties for people who support terrorist groups. While the social conservatives in the movement supported it, those on the libertarian end of the Tea Party spectrum argued that the bill, originally aimed at Islamic groups, was a government intrusion on personal liberties.
In Indiana, Tea Party groups had vowed to unite behind a challenger to run against Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the Republican primary in 2012 but soon fell to disagreement, with some groups refusing to attend a planned nominating convention.
And earlier this month, some Tea Party groups objected when Amy Kremer, the leader of the Tea Party Express, a group founded by longtime Republican consultants, told an interviewer that Tea Party supporters would fall in line behind whoever became the Republican nominee for president.
"I think people see this movement that became enormous and powerful and they are trying to harness it," said Jennifer Stefano, one of the Pennsylvania Tea Party members who has opposed the school choice bill. "And everyone who asks my advice on how to do this, I tell them not to try, because it’s not possible."
Pennsylvania, a perennial swing state, was an early breeding ground for the Tea Party movement. In April 2009, Anastasia Przybylski, a mother in Bucks County, was inspired to hold a "roast the pork" protest against the federal stimulus bill at the site where George Washington rallied his troops before crossing the Delaware to attack British forces. Przybylski and her co-organizers sent the information about the event to FreedomWorks, the Washington powerhouse led by Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader, which was trying to publicize Tea Party events across the country. Soon, FreedomWorks had enough contacts in the state that it held training sessions for Pennsylvania Tea Party activists.
FreedomWorks encouraged its trainees to learn from the teachings of Saul Alinsky, the father of modern community organizing and a hero of the left. They advocated a high pressure, win-at-any-cost approach, advising activists to use ridicule, agitate and disrupt to get what they wanted.
After the midterm elections, the group hired Przybylski and Ana Puig, another activist, who called their group the Kitchen Table Patriots, to lobby for a school choice bill here.
FreedomWorks is pushing anti-union legislation in several states and saw the school choice legislation as part of that larger battle.
The proposed bill would give vouchers to students in failing schools who are poor enough to qualify for the federal free lunch program. The amount would vary according to how much money the state contributes to each district and would be expanded to a limited number of additional students in the second and third years of the program. It would cost an estimated $50 million in the first year, $100 million in the second and $1 billion in the third.
FreedomWorks hoped that having Puig and Przybylski’s support would give the bill grass-roots credibility.
But many Tea Party groups objected, saying that the bill violates the principles they have fought for, in particular, the libertarian tenet that the government cannot take property from one person against his will for the benefit of someone else. The bill, they argue, amounts to another government entitlement program.
"It creates class warfare," said Sharon Cherubin, an activist in Lancaster County who home schools her children. "Is it fair that John Doe’s family earns a penny over poverty level and his parents have to sacrifice and work four jobs while the next guy gets a free ride?"
FreedomWorks has paid for robocalls and newspaper and television campaigns against several conservative Republican legislators who oppose the bill. And Tea Party activists complain that the group has treated them with contempt. At a meeting in April, the president of FreedomWorks, Matt Kibbe, called opponents of the bill "bed-wetters," prompting a confrontation with Tea Party members. The Republican who sponsored the bill, Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola, accused its critics of racism.
"They took far too seriously their own Saul Alinsky training," Stefano said. "It’s one thing to go against the left, but this is taking it up against your own family, the people who stood side by side with you. The whole reason the Tea Party came up is that we were tired of people coming in and telling us what to do. Now they’re coming in here and trampling on the very people they take credit for creating."
Puig and Przybylski say these criticisms reflect the naivete of many Tea Party activists.
"I was naive, too," Przybylski said. "But when you start talking to people, you realize how difficult it is to get a fraction of what you really want through the legislature. You have to take an incremental approach."
Working with FreedomWorks, she said, allowed her group to "professionalize ourselves."
FreedomWorks says that of its 30,000 members in Pennsylvania, 10,000 have signed a petition supporting the education bill.
With the legislative session expiring this week, two forces of Tea Party activists have been working the state Capitol here. Last week, Przybylski and Puig were inside trying to persuade undecided lawmakers to support the bill. Outside, other Tea Party groups were holding a news conference to express their objections — and advocate for a proposal that would instead expand tax credits for companies that give low- and middle-income students scholarships to attend private schools.
"We can’t, as a Tea Party organization, allow anyone to speak for us," said Lisa Esler, a Tea Party activist who is supporting the bill. "That’s the lesson."