What They Saw in Arkansas

16 years after Bill Clinton, another "education governor" seeks the presidency. A look at the Huckabee record on higher ed.
January 8, 2008

On Mike Huckabee's campaign Web site, there's nary a mention of his plans for higher education should he be elected president of the United States. The former governor of Arkansas has weathered some debate skirmishes over his support for keeping the children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition and merit scholarships as long as they graduated from high school there. Beyond that dispute -- and his raised hand when a moderator asked which Republican candidates didn't believe in evolution -- scrutiny of Huckabee's education record has remained mainly on his K-12 initiatives.

When former colleagues and education officials in Arkansas talk about Huckabee, though, they remember a governor who cared deeply about higher education and who pushed for more research and better facilities, supported job training initiatives and emphasized the necessity of high-tech investment for sustained economic growth.

Huckabee's accomplishments during two and a half terms leading a state with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature have often placed him at odds with his Republican opponents in the presidential debates, especially when he has been forced to defend increases in spending that sometimes benefited Arkansas' public colleges and universities. Not all of his plans were successful, however, and he didn't always initiate the higher education reforms that were. Even when he disagreed with the Arkansas General Assembly, he tended to support increasing public funds for higher education -- although it's not clear whether that was out of pragmatic necessity or genuine conviction.

Now the former governor, fresh from a win in Iowa's Republican causes last week, is pursuing his primary campaign with the help of intense support from voters increasingly drawn to his unifying, casual style, an economic populism and religion-infused socially conservative views -- despite entrenched opposition within the party establishment. His rise, some political analysts have observed, mirrors in more ways than one the trajectory of another "education governor" from Hope, Ark., who was catapaulted to the presidency: Bill Clinton.

One thing officials who worked with Huckabee agree on is his passion for education. In 2005, the University of Arkansas awarded the governor an honorary doctorate of laws, citing his dedication to education policy. A magna cum laude graduate of Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkadelphia -- completing his degree in two and a half years -- and later studying (but not earning a degree) at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Tex., Huckabee went on as governor to chair the Education Commission of the States from 2004 to 2006, working with officials from across the country to study trends and recommend policy.

"He was a very good friend of higher education ... and of course K-12 as well,” said Lu Hardin, the president of the University of Central Arkansas, on a break from campaigning for Huckabee in Concord, N.H.

Hardin, the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education from 1997 to 2002, was a Democrat when Huckabee appointed him but soon switched affiliations. He said there was no stipulation to do so. Citing his support of Huckabee's agenda for the nation and their personal relationship dating to Hardin's time as chairman of the State Senate Education Committee (when Huckabee was lieutenant governor), Hardin has donated the maximum $2,300 to the presidential campaign. (Huckabee became governor in 1996 when Democrat Jim Guy Tucker resigned after a fraud conviction.)

While Huckabee hasn't emphasized his record on higher education on the campaign trail, Hardin recalled a speech over the weekend in which Huckabee cited a man who took on a second job to support his daughter's master's program at Cornell University. Huckabee made two points, Hardin said: He's glad his daughter Sarah isn't getting a master's degree at Cornell, and no one should have to work two jobs to pay for an education.

For Hardin, two of Huckabee's most significant achievements were boosting funding for higher education and expanding scholarships. Under the governor, the Academic Challenge Scholarship -- the target of criticism during the campaign because of the lack of an immigration test -- expanded from 2,500 students in 1997 to 5,700 in 2000 thanks mostly to a concerted awareness campaign, he said. While Huckabee supported a measure that would have allowed some children of illegal immigrants to receive the scholarships, the bill never passed the legislature.

“It basically was a reasonable policy of saying, the higher ed community is not the I.N.S. We are not the ones who are there to enforce the immigration laws,” Hardin said.

Huckabee also expanded the Governor's Distinguished Scholarship -- which awards $10,000 to students with top ACT and SAT scores -- to private institutions, arguing (not without opposition) that it would keep more students in Arkansas. The initiative worked: Eighty-eight percent of students from the state who scored 32 or above on the ACT attended Arkansas colleges in 2002, compared with 38 percent five years earlier. Huckabee added some $15 million of funding to cover that expansion as well as the Academic Challenge Scholarships.

The funding increases were achieved despite lagging support for higher education across the country and a court mandate that left Huckabee's administration searching for ways to funnel more money into public primary and secondary schools. But according to Richard Hudson, the vice chancellor for government and community relations at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, higher education received funding increases for 9 out of the 10 years of Huckabee's administration. Even when it wasn't possible, Huckabee sought increases in his yearly budgets. In his last years in office, he sought funding increases of $54 million for fiscal year 2006 and $49 million for fiscal year 2007.

And when another court decision -- this time, the state tobacco settlement -- made extra dollars available, Huckabee directed them toward health initiatives, including health-related research. The Fayetteville campus, for example, receives $2 million a year for such research, Hudson said.

But to be a competitive player in research, Huckabee also believed his state needed to be wired. Once he heard about the National LambdaRail, a high-bandwidth "e-corridor network" connecting research institutions and enabling real-time videoconferencing, he managed to find $6.4 million to connect the state's main public campuses.

“That was something higher ed didn’t even go to him and ask for ... he just came back and announced, 'By golly, we need to do this,'” Hudson said.

Huckabee made use of the General Improvement Fund to build Arkansas' connections to the e-corridor network, but in other sessions the legislature stripped his ability to direct money from the spillover fund to projects such as higher-ed facilities.

His support for higher education in the state also extended beyond research to two-year institutions. The community college system in Arkansas is relatively young: Under Gov. Bill Clinton, the state added 14 campuses to its existing eight.

"We became kind of a force, if you will, in higher education during Huckabee’s administration," said Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges. That meant boosting career education and work training programs by redirecting federal dollars intended to move students off welfare.

Huckabee's stewardship of the state's university system wasn't without controversy. In 2002, after public pressure, he rescinded his initial decision to replace an African-American member of the otherwise white University of Arkansas Board of Trustees with another white appointee -- selecting instead a doctor who was also black.

And then there's the evolution question. After raising his hand at a Republican debate in May, Huckabee later clarified that while he believed there was a "creative process" involved in the development of humans as a species, he would teach evolution as a theory in science classes and didn't expect schools to teach creationism. "I'm not sure what in the world that has to do with being president of the United States," he said.


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