February 26, 2008

Mike Huckabee on School Vouchers

Carroll Andrew Morse

I was able to attend Governor Mike Huckabee's Rhode Island press event last evening, immediately preceding his rally in Warwick. During the press conference, Russell J. Moore of the Warwick Beacon broke a chain of horserace and identity politics questions being asked by other reporters to -- get this -- ask an actual question about policy, inquiring about Governor Huckabee's position on school vouchers…

Governor Mike Huckabee: I think [vouchers are] a state issue. And the only thing I believe is that the Federal government shouldn't tell a state whether they can or can't do. If a state believes vouchers will improve educational opportunities for it students, they should do it. So I'm for them, if that's what a state chooses to do. What I don't want is a Federal mandate telling a state it has to have them or that it can't have them, because that is not a function or role or right of the Federal government.

Anchor Rising (Er, perhaps shouting out a bit louder than is normally done at a formal press events. Retroactive apologies for being a surly New Englander): How about a judicial ban?

MH: Pardon me?

AR: What if a court says you can't have vouchers?

MH: It depends on why they said it. If it is because it creates a racial imbalance or some issue that goes to the heart of the constitutional question, then the courts would have to be followed. But I don't know about any case like that, I didn't confront that in Arkansas.

Now, at a mainstream press event, I don't expect a candidate to be in full wonk mode, but I found this answer to be unsatisfying. It is true that the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that there are no federal grounds for blocking voucher programs, even when vouchers are applied to religious schools, but there is still much that will be litigated with respect to vouchers. The year after Zelman, the State Supreme Court of Colorado struck down a voucher program that had been approved by the legislature on the grounds that it violated a state constitutional provision on local control. And, at the beginning of 2006, the State Supreme Court of Florida used even vaguer language to strike down an "opportunity scholarship" program, on the grounds that the state constitution requires that education be "uniform".

It may be legitimate to say that cases like the recent Florida and Colorado cases shouldn't involve the Federal government, but that's different from taking the position that there are no court issues involved. When the well-financed, well-organized opponents of vouchers take to the courts to block programs passed by state legislatures, would a President Mike Huckabee use the bully pulpit (and maybe support the writing of a Justice Department amicus brief or two) to support giving parents the maximum resources for finding the best education for their child, or will he be OK with an education policy that tells teachers and students that their job is to meet federal goals (Governor Huckabee is a proponent of No-Child-Left-Behind) while limiting them to a narrow range of means deemed allowable by judges in the name of "uniformity"?

Plus, there is still at least one remaining issue with vouchers at the Federal level, the so-called "Blaine amendments" written into the constitutions of 36 states that expressly ban the public financing of religious-based schools. New Hampshire's provision provides one of the most direct examples…

. . . no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination."
(Incidentally, Rhode Island is one of the states that doesn't have a Blaine amendment, which would make implementing a voucher plan easier here than in other states.) Does Governor Huckabee believe that vouchers are a cut-and-dried federalism issue when their implementation is blocked by state constitutional provisions that mandate discrimination on the basis of religion?

Unfortunately, Governor Huckabee's squishy answer on the subject of vouchers reinforces the idea that if elected President, he is not someone who will be an innovative policy guy. Yes, I know he's in favor of a national sales tax, but say that his tax plan, which is a longshot at this moment in history whether it's a good idea or not, fails to win Congressional approval. What comes up next on President Huckabee's domestic agenda? De-centralizing things so that people have maximum freedom to use their tax dollars as they see fit, however they are collected? Or is he more of a Rockefeller Republican than his blue-state critics give him credit for, someone who is satisfied with saying, well, with a good guy like me in charge, we can make big bureaucratic government work! Mike Huckabee has to show a little more creativity on policy to convince conservatives that his positions don't tend towards the latter.

I hope that the Governor's supporters will take this as a constructive criticism, as Governor Huckabee could be a figure who could help unite the different wings of the Republican party -- if he is truly open to the full range of conservative ideas on domestic policy.

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The Feds routinely make receipt of federal funds contingent upon this, that or the other - such as no federal highway aid without a 55 MPH speed limit or .08 definition for DUI.

So making federal education aid contingent upon a state offering vouchers for "public" and "private" school tuition is certainly doable - if there were the political will to put the best interests of children ahead of the interests of the teachers unions.

Posted by: Tom W at February 26, 2008 11:57 AM

Good point, Tom.

This highlights what some people (like me) find a tad discomforting about the Huckabee candidacy. I presume he would oppose what you've suggested, on the basis of his saying that he opposes any Federal mandates for vouchers. On the other hand, he is an NCLB supporter, so he is for Federal education mandates, it seems, as long as they don't weaken bureaucratic control of public education.

Posted by: Andrew at February 26, 2008 12:17 PM

Perhaps you should have attended the rally as well. Huckabee has been the only governor to ever appoint a home school representative on his state's board of education, the only governor I know of who has [in an overwhelmingly Democratic state!] passed a fair teacher dismissal law, the governor who took his state from second to last in educational achievement to eighth from the top, the governor who oversaw a decrease in child obesity in his state during his governorship [the only state to do so], etc. Though I am a person who has earned degrees in physics, I find his "weapons of mass instruction" educational ideas worthy of consideration.
Your technical points are well taken, but I fail to see any basis for skepticism regarding his ability for innovative, conservative policy initiatives or his ability to spar with entrenched power structures. He made it abundantly clear that he would return the responsibility for education of children to their parents, not leave it with uncaring government bureaucracies.
Has the Republican Party been affected too much by its copying of the Democratic strategy of using those receiving special priviledges to help fund the criticisms of any opponents of those priviledges?

Posted by: Barry at February 26, 2008 12:39 PM


I'm not intimately familiar with Huckabee's record, but ...

The Arkansas Republican Assembly endorsed Thompson over home state Huckabee, very telling, and

The NH NEA affiliate endorsed Huckabee. By definition the NEA is against high quality education (for it would require highly skilled teachers and accountability). So if the NEA endorsed him, he can't be good on education.

All that said, I'm planning on voting for him in the March 4th primary - but only as a protest vote against McAmnesty.

Posted by: Tom W at February 26, 2008 8:47 PM


This report from the Hoover institution comes to a different conclusion than Arkansas being 8th from the top in education...

NAEP Exams, Percent Proficient, AR Rank

  • Reading Grade 4, 2005 30% (29 of 51)
  • Reading Grade 8, 2005 26% (37 of 51)
  • Math Grade 4, 2005 34% (33 of 51)
  • Math Grade 8, 2005 22% (41 of 51)
  • Writing Grade 4, 2002 19% (33 of 44)
  • Writing Grade 8, 2002 19% (36 of 42)

I'm sure the 8th from the top is related to some metric, but probably not a meaningful metric. (Since NCLB was passed, numerous states have made their assessment tests easier, to create an illusion that things are improving faster than they are).

It's not my intention to Huck-a-bash, but it's this kind of playing fast and loose with the numbers that contributes to people thinking that Governor Huckabee isn't serious about policy outcomes and that he takes a liberal attitude that policy success can be assessed by measuring the growth of resources placed under bureaucratic control.

p.s. I'm not voting for John McCain in the primary, because I think he takes the same attitudes.

Posted by: Andrew at February 27, 2008 8:32 AM

I'd like to see where those rankings were at the beginning, and then the end of his governorship. Where they stand now is less important than whether or not they moved, in what direction and by how much.

Posted by: George at February 27, 2008 11:07 AM

Tom and Andrew,
The New Hampshire NEA endorsement has been answered previously: Huckabee was the Republican endorsed, Hillary was the Democrat who was endorsed. Huckabee was the only candidate on the Republican side to show up to ask for an endorsement, and the New Hampshire NEA suggested that the 25% of their membership that were Republicans would be served well by a candidate endorsement. While asking for their endorsement he in no way indicated he supported the NEA's agenda, quite the contrary. He in no way deviated from what can be found on his web site. He has consistently stuck to the same tune on education. I have to admit that his policy statements do not go into detail, but in general he is for greater parental control [come on guys, the homeschoolers were some of his earliest endorsers, he just doesn't come from the right milieu to ever be accused of pandering to public education monopolies], more left side of the brain education [viz., music and art], and less federal control. These are the same things he said at his rally in Rhode Island. The national legal organization for homeschoolers--not ignorant of their business--endorsed him before the Iowa caucus date.
Excuse my quoting of statistics that came directly from the candidate. My mistake. However, I in no way have ever found him advocating a greater role for the central bureaucracy. His whole speech had a theme [besides the one of being the best candidate] of returning to rewarding individual effort. Plenty of past debates, plenty of videos available to document his consistency on this issue.

Posted by: Barry at February 28, 2008 1:18 PM

I DO wish that I could get a "VOUCHER" for the two teenage grandchildren I am "raising"..(for the last almost 14 yrs.) the two are now 13 & 14 yrs old...but since our government officials are so busy taking all of the "GOOD" things away from the PUBLIC SCHOOLS, such as "DISCIPLINE", "MORAL CHARACTER", and just plain GOD HIMSELF (NOT RETAINING GOD IN THEIR KNOWLEDGE!) The young students are allowed to be "IN CONTROL" so I DO wish that I could my two grandchildren to a school where they allow GOD IN THE SCHOOL!!! thank you a very concerned grandmother for ALL YOUNG PEOPLE. (NOT JUST MY OWN!)

Posted by: willie f. irving at March 31, 2008 9:21 AM
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