Politics & Policy

A Place for Huck?

Secretary of Education might suit the governor well.

Now that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has suspended his campaign, Senator John McCain’s nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate is all but certain. For that, he has former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee largely to thank. If Huckabee hadn’t drawn the strong support of religious conservatives in Iowa, South Carolina, and a swath of southern Super Tuesday states, Romney may have paved a path to the White House. Now the question is: How can McCain repay the favor? What’s next for the Huck?

Some people think the senator should offer the Baptist minister a spot on the ticket as a way to garner support from the party’s southern conservatives. But picking an economic populist would demoralize fiscally conservative Republicans. The Arizona senator may very well want a youngish domestic-policy guru with executive experience, but there are several other GOP governors from whom to choose.

A Cabinet position is a much better fit for the guitar-playing preacher, and no address is more appropriate than 400 Maryland Avenue, home to the U.S. Department of Education.

Some Huckabee supporters might scoff; surely a leading presidential contender deserves a higher office than one currently filled by Margaret Spellings, a policy wonk and former staffer. But look at the big picture: Some of the nation’s most respected education secretaries, including Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Richard Riley, also made their names as effective southern governors. Consider, also, the example of another great education secretary, William J. Bennett.

A McCain-appointed Secretary of Education Huckabee would produce some striking similarities to the Bennett years. Bennett served President Ronald Reagan, a devoted federalist with no aspirations to be an “education president.” Education was barely on his to-do list, beyond dismantling the newly created Department of Education and trying yet again to restore prayer to the schools and enact tuition tax credits. Reagan’s preeminent concerns were global and transcendent: fighting the Cold War; building up the military; giving the American economy room to breathe. He was more than happy to delegate education to the able and affable Bennett, his second-term secretary.

And Bennett made the most of the office. No, there weren’t any major policy breakthroughs, but Bennett understood the power of the bully pulpit as well as anyone, and used it aggressively to shake America out of its slumber and awake to the necessity of serious school reform. Bennett, like his boss, was (and remains) a Great Communicator, and used the tools at his disposal to move the country from “A Nation at Risk” to a nation embracing standards, accountability, and school choice, among other things.

McCain may not be a full-fledged Reaganite conservative, but the Arizona maverick has shown zero interest in education in his campaign so far, and minimal concern about the topic in his legislative career — and that’s not a knock against him. Education policy shouldn’t be the president’s top priority, the more so if you believe in a limited, humble federal role. And if there’s anything that NCLB has taught us, it’s the need for greater humility in Washington when it comes to education policymaking.

A President McCain would no doubt give a Secretary Huckabee ample room to run (unlike the current president, whose staff tried to keep his first education secretary, legendary Houston superintendent Rod Paige, on a short leash — to the administration’s detriment.) And run he would. The governor, rare among Republican candidates, shows an affinity for education, and an ability to connect with parents and teachers. Like Bennett, Alexander, or Riley before him, he also knows how to communicate in today’s vernacular. And he has a strong record on education (save for some paleo views on evolution), even if his position on vouchers hasn’t always been crystal clear.

Huckabee’s folksy charm plays especially well with an education system that prides itself on its “niceness.” He has championed art and music education on the campaign trail — a boutique issue but one that illustrates his concern for the real stuff of the classroom and for kids who can do more than read and cipher. An ability to connect to, and inspire, what happens inside schools is the most important attribute for the next education secretary to have.

We stand at a unique moment in history. The last two decades have witnessed dizzying change and endless education reform, culminating with NCLB. A backlash against high standards, clear accountability, and greater choice is gaining steam. What’s needed from Washington is not more shoot-the-moon rhetoric and top-down mandates, but leadership. We need a credible education secretary who can effectively communicate this simple message: accountability and competition are here to stay.

In other words, education reform could use a kinder, gentler face — but one backed by steely principle.

Moreover, we need policies that give the nation’s governors — the true drivers of school change — the room to innovate again. That means updating NCLB to be friendlier to reform-minded leaders at the state and local level. As a former governor, Huckabee could lead this update with credibility, thoughtfulness, and poise.

Huckabee’s friendly populism may be just what we need in an education secretary, much as Bennett’s jovial jousting was what was called for in the 1980s. Huckabee could be the nation’s next great education secretary — and might hand a President McCain an education legacy, after all.

 – Michael J. Petrilli is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an executive editor of Education Next. He served as a George W. Bush administration appointee in the U.S. Department of Education from 2001-2005.

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