Exclusive Interview: Huckabee on Education and School Choice

By Terence P. Jeffrey | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT
(Photo by John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images)
(Photo by John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) - Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Republican presidential candidate, told Cybercast News Service that he supports tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools and that public schools ought to teach children, as per the Declaration of Independence, that there is a God and that our rights come from Him.

Cybercast News Service Editor in Chief Terence P. Jeffrey interviewed Huckabee via phone about his views on education and school choice on the morning of December 28. Here is a transcript and audio recording of that interview.

Can you point to the language in the U.S. Constitution that authorizes the federal government to have a Department of Education or be involved in primary and secondary education?

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.):
I don't think there is really a federal role or responsibility, constitutionally, in education. I think education is a local function. It should be a state function. I have always believed that, and I still believe it.

I think if there's a role it is to encourage, it's to recognize the value and importance. Ronald Reagan tried to get rid of the Department of Education, found that it was virtually impossible to do it. So, if we are going to have one, let's make sure it serves a role that is consistent with the Constitution, which is to become a clearinghouse of best practices that are being employed by the states and by local school districts, rather than becoming a center of mandating educational initiatives pushed back down to the states.

But in principle, you agree with President Reagan that the Department of Education is unconstitutional and the federal government really shouldn't be involved in primary and secondary education?

Gov. Mike Huckabee:
Well, I don't know if you can say that having the department is unconstitutional. I think having a mandate where you insist on exactly what education looks like at the local level would be unconstitutional. That's the difference. (Listen to audio)

Do you think that No Child Left Behind Act is constitutional?

Gov. Mike Huckabee:
If it's employed properly it could be constitutional. Here's the idea: No Child Left Behind is very misunderstood by most people, because under NCLB you still have states setting their own benchmarks. A lot of people say that it's the federal government telling you exactly what you can do. It does not do that. What it does say is that states will have benchmarks, they'll have to set what those are, and, how they determine those will then ultimately determine whether they receive federal funding for certain programs, whether it's Title I, Title II, Title IX, etc.

So, there is a sense in which there is a carrot and a stick involved. It can be argued that that is not a great idea. There is one great benefit of NCLB that has happened. It's got some problems. Needs some work. The benefit is that it makes sure that we treat students as individuals rather than allowing them to be simply sucked up into the vortex of the overall school grade, and you completely miss the impact of individuals. That's the plus. The minus is that there are some flaws in the way that it is administered on two fronts: one, you don't have adequate scoring and testing for the broad scope of the curriculum, which means you end up only testing and only evaluating on reading and math scores. And the second thing is that what you end up with is the easy path of coming up with some skewed results if you have a disproportionate number of kids who are in IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or ESL, English as a second language. And those are things that need to be fixed.

You would add more testing to No Child Left Behind?

Gov. Mike Huckabee:
I wouldn't federally mandate it. I would make sure that states recognize that what they need to do is broaden their curriculum, make sure that you have a curriculum that captures the interests of the students, rather than simply perpetuates the preferences of the school. We have a school-based education system, not a student-based education system, and what we need to begin focusing on-and this is what I did as a governor for ten and a half years, and we saw dramatically improved test results-you raise the standards, you measure, you have accountability, but you have a curriculum that interests what students are concerned about and what keeps them excited about learning. We have 6,000 kids a day that drop out of school, it's a terrible record we have in this country, and it's not because kids are dumb, it's because they are bored. (Listen to audio)

On December 12, the Concord Monitor ran a story saying that you had met with the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association and that the union was endorsing you. The report said: "Huckabee became the first Republican yesterday to be endorsed by the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association. In a short press conference, President Rhonda Wesolowski lauded Huckabee's opposition to school vouchers and his commitment to arts and music education." Three days later, on December 15, Catholic Online published an interview with you, and they asked: "Catholics believe that parents are the first teachers of their children and that they should be able to choose how to extend their teaching office from among all of the available alternatives; public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools and home schools. What is your position on parental choice in education?" You responded to them: "I support parental choice. Parents are much better able to make those decisions for their children than a government bureaucrat." So, which is it? Do you oppose vouchers, which the New Hampshire NEA believes is your position, or do you support school choice that would even allow children to go to Catholic schools, as you told Catholic Online?

There is no inconsistency, because what I believe is, first of all, education is a mom and dad decision, not an Uncle Sam position. We ought to empower parents and let them make the best choices for their kids. I'm probably one of the few candidates you have ever seen that has the recommendation of an NEA chapter, but also has the strong national recommendation of home-schoolers. And the reason is because I ultimately do believe it is a mother-and-father decision. The state's purpose is to empower and enable parents to make the decision they believe is right. But I believe if you are going to have public schools, make them the best they can be. I don't support federally mandating vouchers. If a state wishes to implement a voucher program, they have to decide how it works, and how well it works, and what the criteria would be.

What I don't want to do is to have the federal government coming down and telling all 50 states here is how you are going to fund education, here is what vouchers are going to look like. Because in some states, for example mine, it would be very problematic to create a statewide voucher system when most of our schools are rural, they're small, they are miles from another school, the economies of scale simply wouldn't necessarily make it that easy to implement a widespread voucher system. But if local districts wished to do it, if states wish to do it, I think that's fine. It goes back to the basic concept that this is a state's decision.

At the same time, when I was governor, I passed some of the friendliest home-school legislation in the country. I was the first governor in the history of America to appoint a home-school parent to state board of education. She served as one of the best members we ever had on the state board. We made it so that parents had more choices. We improved charter schools, and expanded charter schools. We also enabled and authorized virtual schools, so that kids could actually go online to get their education. We ought to be looking at options. We shouldn't close our minds to different ways to educate students. Again, it goes back to the most important point: school ought to be about what's best for students, not just what's best for schools. (Listen to audio)

Governor, going back to Arkansas, in 1998 when you were governor, the Murphy Commission, which was a group put together by the Arkansas Policy Foundation, spent a good deal of time studying the Arkansas schools. In September of 1998, they recommended that Arkansas move toward a system where every student in the state be given a voucher equal to the amount that the government was spending per pupil on the students in the Arkansas public schools, and that those vouchers be redeemable at public, private and religious schools. And you opposed that proposal. But why wouldn't have been good for students, say, in Little Rock, every one of them, to get a voucher that would have allowed them to leave a bad public school and go to a parochial school or a Christian school?

Well, the main reason was twofold. First of all, most of the Christian schools in Arkansas strongly opposed that because the voucher would not have completely covered the cost, but they would have been forced to have received anyone who showed up with a voucher. And that meant that if you had a student that showed up with a voucher and couldn't make it, they would be subject to being sued for having a discrimination practice.

Did the Murphy Commission recommend that?

No. No. If you go back and look at the whole report, and all the things that happened from the Murphy Commission -- which, by the way, I was the one who appointed the Murphy Commission, and the Murphy Commission looked at every aspect of state government, Mike and Donna Watson were the primary authors of the education initiative--we implemented most of the recommendations of the commission. That's why we saw many of the improvements we saw in everything from test scores, to funding, to curriculum expansion, to accountability measures. But the one area that really did not go well was the idea of implementing vouchers. And, again, there were two reasons. Let me get back to them. One was the opposition we had from Christian school administrators, who were fearful that once you take government money, you take government control. Many of them said they would lose their distinctive nature if they were forced to be under government regulations and government mandates that they frankly didn't want. They did not want that level of interference.

But the second thing that happened, or would potentially happen, was you would have students who if they came to the school without a level that met the full tuition, one of two things: they either then say, look, you are going to have to make up the difference as a private school or we'll sue for discrimination, or, if they win that, then the only people able to go were those who could subsidize the rest of the voucher, and most of the students in my state would have been unable to access it, because there were only a few districts large enough, with the economies of scale, that could have actually implemented the full-scale voucher system.

I think it is an idea that needs to be thoroughly vetted. But like anything that is different and new, the best thing to do is to let states innovate it, create it, try it, show where it works, show where the problems are, improve upon those, and then I promise, if it really works every other state will begin to copy it and improve upon it. (Listen to audio)

Why did you not propose, or would you have not proposed, legislation in Arkansas that would have shielded private and Christian schools that took students with vouchers from additional regulation and that provided enough money, like the Murphy Commission recommended, the full per-pupil cost, so that students would be able to afford the full cost of going to a private school?

Well part the reason, again, was the opposition of the private schools and the Christian schools themselves. They weren't pushing it. Within the political climate of Arkansas, you need to understand, we were in a Supreme Court case that had gone through three governors. Our primary focus was to make sure that we could get out of that court case so that we would have a constitutional school system. That our public schools-we have already determined we are going to have them. That's been determined. So, it's now our obligation to make sure they are the best they can be, to actually reform them. So, knowing that we didn't have the political capital, knowing that there wasn't political will on the part of either the public or private system to implement some of those recommendations, we took the recommendations that we could get done. And that included vast expansion of charter schools, giving home school parents more power and authority than they have ever had before, putting people in the home-school environment on the state board of education, and actually seeing our public schools improved in part because we injected competition into the system that had never been in the system before. So sometimes people say, 'Why didn't you do these things?' What you need to do is look at what we did do, what we did get done, and how significant it was to completely change the level of play we had in our state. (Listen to audio)

Governor, in that same year of 1998, you told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Arkansas was spending about $4,000 per child in the public schools and that "Arkansas has not spent all that it perhaps needs to," and you also told the Democrat-Gazette that you could not support a voucher system until "the public schools are up to snuff." But that suggests that you don't believe that a school-choice system that causes the public schools to have to compete with Christian schools, and Catholic schools, and private schools, would in fact be the instrument that would force the public schools to come up to snuff?

No, I don't think that's what it means at all. I think what it means is that if you have a system that is under-funding your students and they are not being adequately prepared, if even in the private system they cost significantly more than what you are paying in the public system, I'm not sure how you can say that if you put those same kids in the private system you are going to have to fund them with more dollars than you are paying in the public schools.

Back in 1998, if you were spending $4,000 in the public schools in Arkansas, you can send a child to a parochial school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., for about that money today, almost a decade later. You don't think that $4,000 is enough to educate a child, say, in 1st grade, or in 8th grade for that matter?

It might be in some private schools. In some, it wouldn't. It depends on which private school. In some of the Christian academies it would, but those Christian academies didn't want it. In some of the private schools in Arkansas, some of the ones that were frankly premier prep schools, it would not cover the tuition. And the other fact that you have to remember is that it might cover a cost of a completely healthy child who has no disabilities, but if the child has a disability, if the child is under the IDEA, then that child costs as much as some do in Arkansas up to $65,000-$75,000 per year per child. Does that school then have to take that child? I think under most rules, yes, it would have to take it, and figure out a way to make up the difference. And that's why many of the private schools resisted the concept of the system.

Do you think a school choice program would force private and religious schools to take children that they did not want to accept otherwise?

Well, you are going to have a discrimination issue. If you turn a student down because he has a disability, that's a lawsuit ready to happen. And every one of the attorneys that I think have looked at this I think would tell you that that's going to be a serious problem if you offer a voucher system and you say, okay, here's the deal: here's a voucher, you can take it anywhere you want, but if you have a disability and it doesn't make the difference, you're just out of luck. It's a discrimination issue.

But you wouldn't oppose a school-choice system where if it costs $65,000 to educate that disabled child in the public school, you give him a voucher for $65,000 and see where he can take it on the open market?

That's a possibility, but that's not what was proposed in Arkansas. So, I can't answer what wasn't proposed, only what was. (Listen to audio)

Let me ask you a question of basic fairness: All across America, there are working and middle class families, where sometimes both the mother and father are working, and a lot of times the mother is going into the workforce precisely because she wants to make the tuition money to send her child to a religious school, because she doesn't like the moral climate in the public school. She doesn't like what they teach about sex education, for example. She doesn't like what they teach about alternative lifestyles, for example. She thinks, in fact, the parents in fact believe, that the public school is a source of moral corruption for their child. Therefore, they feel that they have a moral duty to do everything they can to liberate that child from that public school and put that child in a learning environment where the teachers and the school administration share their moral vision. So, they scrape and they sacrifice and they save and they just get by, and they drive an old car, and they live in a smaller house, and they just get by on their mortgage, and then that family is not only taxed local property and income taxes to support the public schools that they will not patronize, but they are now taxed by the federal government to support a $70 billion federal Department Education that also supports that local public school. Do you think that's fair to that family?

Well, I think that we ought to have tax credits for a family whose decision is to put their children in an alternative environment. And that is something that I would support. It's an empowering method to families.

But let's remember that the purpose of an education system is to make sure that we have intelligent, young citizens coming up. Are there some problems with the public schools? You bet there are. So what do we do? Well, we have two choices. We can take our children completely out, or we can work as parents and community activists to try to change it. My wife and I kept our kids in public schools. I was the first governor in Arkansas in 50 years whose kids actually went to the public schools of my state. A lot of Democrat governors talked about how much they loved public education, but their own kids didn't necessarily go there for their entire educational time. My wife and my decision-and, again, we have dear friends that home school, that is why I supported home-schoolers, still do, believe that that is one of the most amazing sacrifices that parents make-we chose to get very involved in our local schools, everything from PTA to becoming VIPS, which is a volunteer in public schools. One of the reasons I ran for office is because of my three children, looking at what was going on in public education, and wanting to fight for change. I think those are things that parents decide. But it's not that one parent has a choice that is better than another. It is that that is what America is all about. It's parents making the decision they believe best.

Hopefully, the real values that a child gets-I'd never trust the public schools to religiously indoctrinate my children. I would never trust the public schools to give them their spiritual grounding. That was my responsibility as a father. It was always my understanding that it would be a value system that would be shared first at home, then at church, and hopefully would give them the strength to be able to survive even whatever challenge that they faced.

You don't believe that public schools in America often try to indoctrinate children with a different value system than their parents are trying to teach them at home?

Oh certainly they do. And that's all the more reason that I think we create strength in our children. We give them moral character and direction, and we do that because they are going to live in a rough, tough world out there.

Even if we are fighting with a public school system which is trying to make our child into a completely different person.

We fight to change it. We fight to make it better. We fight to make sure that our values are not trampled upon. But there are a lot of parents who are not going to be making that fight, and if we all disappear from it, than what we do, we truly do leave them in a complete moral vacuum, which is simply unacceptable. (Listen to audio)

In 1999, you published a piece in the Arkansas Review in opposition to prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In it you said: "However, we must ask what exactly people want when they say 'Put prayer back in school.' Do they mean reinstituting a mandatory moment of silence? Is that prayer? Do they want a school official to read a written prayer over the intercom? Do they want the legislature to mandate these duties to the local schools? If so, should the legislature also specify which God is officially recognized by the state of Arkansas?" Don't you think the public schools in this country should recognize the same God that you will when you put your hand on the Bible to take the oath of office, if you are elected president of the United States, that you will swear an oath to defend our Constitution? Shouldn't our public schools -- ?

First, Terry, let me make sure you understand if you read the article carefully. It's that I don't want some government official or some school person becoming responsible for the religious indoctrination of my children. That's my responsibility. Should students be able to pray in school? Absolutely. Student-led prayer should be constitutionally protected because I think it is constitutionally protected. What I don't think is protected is to have the school dictate what the prayer is because I'm afraid in this kind of culture we live in you will have some namby-pamby squishy thing that doesn't even resemble a prayer. That's not what my kids need. They need somebody who understands that when they pray in my house, we pray to God in the name of Jesus, and that's the way we pray. I don't expect the public schools to teach my kids that. But, by golly, I expect my wife and I to teach our kids that.

Governor, our whole system of government is based on an understanding of natural law that comes from God. The Declaration of Independence says that our rights are inalienable and we are endowed with them by our Creator. Shouldn't our public schools at least recognize that there is a God, and that our rights come from God, and that the ultimate source of our law is God?

Absolutely, and that's what our Declaration of Independence said. That's what our Founding Fathers believed. And we shouldn't have a revisionist history that denies the part of our spiritual heritage.

So the public schools should teach children there is a God, and our rights come from God? They should teach them that?

If they teach our history, they have to teach that. But they don't have to teach them how they are going to specifically believe in that God. That's where the line comes. But the thing is, we shouldn't be afraid of giving kids the truth about our American history and heritage. We ought to make sure they know what it is. David Barton, who is one of my dear friends, and probably, I think, maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America's early days, is a person who I wish was writing the curriculum. But unfortunately, we have a time where people just don't even acknowledge what our curriculum is.

The bottom line is that I don't want to turn the spiritual instruction of my children over to a public entity that I don't trust. And I don't think any parent would want to say to the public schools, you know what, I am not going to take my kids to church, I am not going to pray with them, or read them the Bible at home, I am going to let the public schools do it. That's where parents fail. When parents don't take that responsibility and they turn it over to an institution of government, what a failure that is, and what a cop out that is. We as parents need to take charge of our own families and our own children. Those are our responsibilities. And I would never trust the government to do what's my responsibility as a husband and father to do. (Listen to audio)

Governor, thank you very much. I greatly appreciate your time, and good luck.

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