Two things have been on my mind recently: what should count as appropriate qualifications for the presidency, or how much do candidates’ backgrounds affect their policies and capabilities? I’d like to tackle these a bit circuitously.
In this race on the GOP side, there are four main categories of candidate: the ‘outsiders,’ with no formal political experience; current and former governors; current and former senators; and current and former representatives. Obviously, in some candidates, these overlap, include experience from other sectors (notably business and finance), etc.
For all the diversity in the field, though, they are all running on the GOP platform. Deviation from the accepted party line is a point of potential weakness, although this doesn’t necessarily come into conflict with the value placed on ‘outsider’ experience. The GOP policy on schools (K-12, not universities) and education is ‘pro-choice,’ or pro-vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, whatever it might take to give families the choice to send kids to non-public schools, including homeschooling programs and religious institutions favored by the social conservative base. Starting with Reagan’s attempt to dismantle the Department of Education, the GOP has favored schools and curricula being organized by state or local government, if not privatized. This has translated pretty universally to opposition to Common Core, and growing opposition to Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. We could draw some general principles from these oppositions, or lay out some of the GOP’s proposed solutions, but let’s take those from the candidates.
Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson all address education in their books, although in different formats. These three candidates each represent one of the classes of Republican candidates I outlined above: Bush was governor of Florida from 1999-2007, Rand Paul is a senator from Kentucky 2011-present, and Ben Carson is one of the most outsider-y outsiders of this race, coming at the election from a background as a pediatric neurosurgeon and more recently Fox News talking head.
Education is a priority for all three candidates. Rand Paul mentions that “A pastor friend of mine in Kentucky has called school choice the civil rights issue of our day. He’s right” (127). Jeb Bush argues that the fact “that millions of children remain mired in educational cesspools despite massive expenditures of taxpayer dollars… represents the greatest failure of American public policy, one that gravely threatens our nation’s future” (184). Ben Carson declares that “The extremely elevated high school dropout rate of [Title I] schools hurts not only the students but the well-being of the entire country” (99).
Jeb Bush and Rand Paul propose a similar principle on which to base an educational system, or the federal government’s involvement in education. As Jeb’s primary issue in his book is immigration, he ties the two together neatly: “Just as the problems overlap, so too do the solutions: we need a market-driven system of immigration, as well as a market-driven system of education” (180). Similarly, Rand Paul on school quality: “Innovation comes only when individuals are free to choose. Competition breeds excellence and encourages innovation” (127). Paul and Bush also agree on some other points, including expanding voucher programs or Education Savings Accounts and promoting online educational resources like those available through Khan Academy. Both touch on Salman Khan’s story of coming from an immigrant family to rising through MIT and Harvard into hedge-fund success then starting an online-education program in a closet to demonstrate their principles of individual initiative in business.
The way they tackle the issue diverges, though. Paul draws on his experience as a potential method of fixing the problem: “That’s exactly what I had in mind when Lamar Alexander and I came up with our school choice amendment. The amendment would use the $14.5 billion in current Title I funds to go directly to 11 million students currently attending high poverty, low performing schools, at $1,300 per child” (126).
But so does Bush: “Starting in 199, Florida embarked upon a series of reforms designed to improve public schools and broaden educational choices” (184). Included in this series of reforms is a school accountability plan grading schools’ performance, expanding school choice and funding this choice through tax credits, introducing teacher performance pay, and ending ‘social promotion.’ Some of the language in this chapter sounds directly drawn from a government announcement: “Believing all kids can learn and recognizing that kids of all colors and backgrounds can excel, Florida focuses on the academic level of the individual student” (185). Following this is a series of statistics showing the efficacy of these reforms, such as the gains in test scores for Black and Hispanic students relative to their white counterparts in and out of the state (187).
And finally, so does Carson. In his National Prayer Breakfast speech, he mentions his philanthropic project, The Carson Scholars Fund. As he says later, “the purpose of the fund is to honor students from all backgrounds who achieve at the highest academic levels and also care about others… the other part of the program concentrates on placing reading rooms all over the country to encourage the love of reading. Special emphasis is placed on Title I schools, where many students come from homes with no books and attend schools with no libraries” (98-99).
So Paul approaches the question of educational attainment from a federal, legislative level. Bush approaches it from a state, initiative level. Carson approaches it from a philanthropic level. We can look at this in a few ways: one argument would be that all of these candidates used what tools were available to them in the posts they’ve held in the past to achieve political goals, as would be expected. Another, closely following, would be that having previous experience shapes what tools, what strategies, and what benchmarks of success are likely to characterize candidates’ approaches to political issues in the future.
This isn’t an answer to the question I asked at the beginning, of what should constitute an acceptable or an appropriate background for a presidential candidate, but it’s a way to think about it. I believe that the tools we are most accustomed to using are the tools we reach for first. These are three very different approaches to a problem, even if the problem comes from the acceptance of the same principles. While the GOP may agree in aggregate that government is best administered at the local level, when a politician who has never held local office becomes president, I think it’s not far-fetched that they may understand potential courses of action differently than someone who has, for better or for worse. This perhaps a very significant way of drawing distinctions between the GOP field: when we’re voting for a president, ‘experience’ carries a lot of weight. Maybe this is a way toward trying to parse what ‘experience’ actually means for a candidate.
I’ll keep an eye on anyone else talking about education in the GOP field and see if their takes do follow this pattern of the governor/state, legislature/federal, and outsider/philanthropic. If they don’t, it’s back to the drawing board, but I think the point about experience and approaches will stand, and may be a good way to try to differentiate within a crowded field.