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Where the Other Surviving Republican Candidates Stand on Higher Education

I can’t remember if Texas Governor Rick Perry could or couldn’t remember if he would eliminate the Department of Education if elected president, but it doesn’t matter now since, rather than endure one more embarrassing debate performance, he packed his bags and went home. One remaining candidate, Ron Paul would eliminate that department.  It’s part of Paul’s plan to drastically reduce the size of the U.S. government as well as its military presence abroad, a platform that has energized a small but fervent base, including a substantial number of young voters. Paul’s not going to win the nomination, but if he does continue all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa, he could influence the party’s platform. So is his plan to eliminate the Department of Education crazy? Not, in my view, as crazy as it might first appear, but I’d far rather see it reconfigured than eliminated altogether were we to wake up this November to a Paul presidency. The Department doesn’t really set a national curriculum at any educational level, nor does it ever get the chance to oversee a national university of the kind that Thomas Jefferson advocated 200 years ago.

So what would we lose if we got rid of it? Most importantly, the Department of Education gives us the National Center for Educational Statistics, an invaluable database without which we would have no idea who we are educating—number of students in grade school, high school, college, kinds of college; students classified by age, by gender, by field of study. We’d be clueless: unable to understand what our own education system is doing, what it’s doing compared to what it’s done in the past, what it does compared to other countries in the world. Without that information clearinghouse, we’d be operating in the dark. For Paul to argue that much of what the Department of Education does is redundant—replicated at the state level—is persuasive, but recommending that we simply do away with it is wildly extreme.

Newt Gingrich would have a very rare relationship to higher education were he to become president: He would be the first president since Woodrow Wilson to have earned a Ph.D. Wilson earned his with a dissertation at Johns Hopkins on the workings of the U.S. Congress; Gingrich wrote his dissertation at Tulane on Belgian education policy in the Congo, 1945-1960. So while he rehearses the standard Republican shibboleths on higher education—and education in general: that the Department of Education should be drastically reduced (again, not necessarily a bad idea), that public K-12 education should be shifted to a voucher system, that prayer should be allowed in public schools, there’s striking evidence that his real views—the one’s he can’t express in a primary fight in which he bills himself as the “true” conservative—are quite different. According to Education News, in 2009, along with Obama’s Secretary of Higher Education, Arne Duncan, and Al Sharpton, he visited a number of schools that were implementing educational reforms, and in November of that year the three of them appeared on Meet the Press, where Gingrich stated, “I agree with Al Sharpton” that education is the “number one civil right of the 21st century.” According to Politico he praised President Obama’s “efforts to make public schools more accountable and called Education Secretary Arne Duncan a ‘serious innovator.’” In a recent Q & A session in Florida captured on YouTube, he advocated expanding the Pell Grant system. Though his comments have largely been restricted to K-12 education, these are clearly not the sentiments of an inflexible conservative but might—and I know I’m speaking optimistically here—reflect the bipartisan, open-minded thinking of someone who has been through the system from start to finish. At least he’s done homework that the other candidates seem not to have done.

In a real head-scratcher, though, both the most absurd and the most rational statements on higher education come from the campaign of Rick Santorum. According to a story from CBSNews.com, Santorum had this to say at a rally in Naples, Fla.:

It’s no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. . . . The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. . . . If they taught Judeo-Christian principles in those universities, they would be [stripped of government dollars]. If they teach radical secular ideology, they get all the government support they can possibly give them. Because you know 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.

I could devote an entire blog post to blowing up that entire gem, but do I really have to?

Yet, at another, saner moment, Santorum makes the point that Obama is elitist because he believes every American child should go to college. He elaborates, saying that he has seven children, that some of them may go to college, but if one of them wants to become an auto mechanic, what’s wrong with that? I take issue with Santorum’s “elitist” label, but the notion that going to college should be an automatic expectation, even an entitlement, deserves scrutiny, and has attracted it from conservative critics of higher education.

So that’s the field. More as the candidates are forced to become more specific—or forced to drop out.

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