GOP Presidential Candidates Clash over Education Freedom

Published February 1, 2008

The president of the United States is the ultimate policy leader, but in most of the 2007 caucus and primary campaigning, education (let alone choice) barely got a mention from the candidates.

However, a month before the Iowa caucuses, contention began on the Republican side that could presage a deeper discussion.

Attacking Huckabee

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) was in the center of the fray.

Former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) got things started with a December 12 news release carried by Standard Newswire targeting Huckabee, who had surged to the front in polls preceding the Iowa caucuses. “Huckabee on Education: No to Vouchers, Let Government Fix It” was the unflattering headline.

Thompson’s camp cited news stories indicating Huckabee had argued against a pro-voucher recommendation of his own school reform commission in 1998. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision upholding vouchers, Huckabee allegedly had doubted “how practical they are.”

The release also cited a 2005 Washington Times story quoting Huckabee calling the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) the federal government’s greatest education reform effort.

Reducing Government

On his Web site, Thompson argues the federal role under NCLB is “too intrusive and too bureaucratic, and has become part of the problem.” He says he favors “empowering the parents by promoting voucher programs, charter schools, and other innovations that enhance education excellence through competition and choice.”

On December 11, some conservative eyebrows arched when NEA-New Hampshire, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, made Huckabee the first Republican it had ever endorsed in the GOP primary. It endorsed Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.

A December 12 article in the Concord Monitor said the state union president had paid little attention to Huckabee’s stance on NCLB but praised his “opposition to school vouchers and his commitment to arts and music education.”

Supporting Vouchers

Noting that, Mike Petrilli, vice president for programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, wrote a December 13 article, “Why Teachers Like Mike” for National Review Online (NRO). He promptly received a December 17 “correction” from the Huckabee camp.

“Governor Mike Huckabee is a supporter of school vouchers, and has always been a supporter of school vouchers; he supported them as far back as his first run for public office, as a U.S. Senate candidate, in 1992,” said aide Joe Carter, who claimed the confusion stemmed from the governor’s expression of concern on a talk radio show about how some of the details of voucher funding would be worked out.

Given that clarification, Petrilli wondered in an NRO author’s note, “Will the teachers’ union rescind its support now that his position is clearer?”

In the December 17 online Communique of his Education Intelligence Agency, veteran teacher-union observer Mike Antonucci made the point that all this in no way amounted to an NEA endorsement of Huckabee. “Because no other GOP candidate agreed to see them, NEA-NH had only two choices: endorse Huckabee or endorse no one. If they failed to endorse Huckabee, why would any future GOP candidate ever visit?” Antonucci asked.

Homeschooling Kids

While Huckabee’s support of vouchers may be debatable, he is considered to be an advocate of parents’ rights to homeschool their children. In Iowa, Christian homeschool families helped propel him to frontrunner status in some polls preceding the caucuses.

Over the long term, what is important is not political skirmishes like these, but the larger battle for educational freedom and whether the 2008 presidential race will advance that cause.

Among the other leading GOP candidates, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has put forward the most specific new ideas for using vouchers.

He proposes to federally fund new voucher programs similar to those already existing in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC; allow states to use their federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds to let special-education students find suitable private or public schools; and set up a pilot voucher program for children of active-duty military personnel.

Improving Quality

Mitt Romney, who strongly supported charter schools and merit pay programs for teachers as governor of Massachusetts, pledges on his Web site to continue embracing choice. He states, “competition and choice in educational opportunities–whether it comes from private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling–makes traditional public schools better and improves the quality of education for all of America’s kids.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) doesn’t feature education as an issue on his Web site, but he has consistently voted for voucher programs. As a candidate for the GOP nomination in 2000, he proposed stripping $5.4 billion from sugar, gas, and ethanol subsidies and putting the funds into a voucher program benefiting families in low-income districts.

None of the Democratic front-runners has endorsed vouchers, which are anathema to their teachers union supporters. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has plugged charter schools at NEA conventions in the past. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has supported increased scholarships for college attendance, but not for K-12 education.

As education expert Herb Walberg has observed, the Supreme Court in 1925 (Pierce v. Society of Sisters) upheld parents’ rights to choose private or public schools for their children, and in 2002 (Zellman v. Simmons-Harris) sustained their right to do so with the help of school choice programs.

The question now is whether policymakers from the White House to governors’ mansions to the tiniest school offices will help parents get what is rightfully theirs.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute.