"I'm probably one of the few candidates you have ever seen that has the recommendation of (a National Education Association) chapter, but also has the strong national recommendation of homeschoolers," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told me in an interview.
This unusual polarity points simultaneously to Huckabee's greatest strength and potential weakness as a Republican presidential candidate.
Among viable candidates, Huckabee is the strongest on the most important social issues, abortion and marriage, which helps explain his appeal to the culturally conservative families represented by Home School Legal Defense Association Chairman Mike Farris, who personally endorsed Huckabee.
Unlike former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Huckabee has always been pro-life and has never pandered to the gay-rights movement. Nor does he oppose a federal marriage amendment or favor federal funding for embryo-killing research, as Sen. John McCain of Arizona does.
However, while Huckabee's eloquence reminds some of Ronald Reagan, aspects of his gubernatorial record have led many conservatives to fear he would perpetuate one of the worst features of the Bush administration: Its embrace of big government.
My interview with Huckabee focused solely on education. The full transcript and audio are available at CNSNews.com. Here are some highlights.
When I asked Huckabee to point to language in the Constitution that authorizes a Department of Education or federal involvement in primary and secondary education, he said he does not believe the federal government has much more than a cheerleading role in this area. "I don't think there is really a federal role or responsibility, constitutionally, in education," he said. "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."
Nonetheless, he does not believe the Department of Education itself is unconstitutional. "I don't know if you can say that having the department is unconstitutional," he said. "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."
Nor does he think the No Child Left Behind Act is unconstitutional. "If it's employed properly, it could be constitutional," he said. "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."
As Arkansas governor, Huckabee reduced regulations on homeschooling and appointed a homeschooling mother to the state board of education.
But he also consistently opposed school-choice programs that included private schools. When a commission he appointed recommended Arkansas give all parents a voucher equal to the per-pupil cost of educating a child in the local public schools, he instantly rejected the proposal. He also opposed President Bush's initial plan to give children in failing federally funded public schools a voucher redeemable at private or religious schools.
At a December press conference, the Concord Monitor reported, the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association "lauded Huckabee's opposition to school vouchers" and announced that the state union was endorsing him.
Huckabee told me that while he opposed vouchers in Arkansas and federal mandates for vouchers, he supports states and local school districts that implement them. "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," he said. "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."
Conservatives, I suspect, will find some of Huckabee's reservations about vouchers more persuasive than others. He cites a compelling argument from Christian school administrators, for example, who told him they fear that "once you take government money, you take government control." He once told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, on the other hand, that vouchers should be off the table in Arkansas until "the public schools are up to snuff."
In his interview with me, however, Huckabee did offer an alternative route to school choice for parents who don't want to send their children to public schools. "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," he said. "It's an empowering method to families."