Mike Huckabee on School Vouchers
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.