BOBBY HARRISON: Federal education funding issue has its political ironies

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

It is at least a bit ironic to see former Gov. Haley Barbour using public education as the issue to attempt to ride to the political rescue of incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

Cochran, a six-term incumbent, faces the political fight of his lengthy political career in the Republican primary runoff against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite.

McDaniel garnered about 1,400 votes more than Cochran in the June 3 primary, but not the majority needed to bypass the June 24 runoff.

With Cochran’s political life in real doubt, Barbour has stepped up to maintain McDaniel is far out of the mainstream because he has said he opposes all federal education spending going to the states. McDaniel says under the U.S. Constitution, education is a function of the state and local governments.

Barbour said eliminating federal funding would destroy public education in Mississippi.

The fact that Barbour seems to believe that education funding is the issue that can sway a Republican runoff in Cochran’s favor and that Barbour is out front on the issue are ironic because during his eight years as governor he constantly fought with the Democratic-controlled House over education. The House wanted to spend more on education than the Republican Barbour would support. He said the state could not afford to fully fund public education under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program as was routinely the position of legislative Democrats.

In almost every year Barbour was in office, the final budget deal provided more funds for public education that what the governor originally proposed, but less than the Democrats recommended.

Only one year did the governor’s original budget recommendation fully fund public education. And in the midst of that year, just as it appeared Mississippi was finally in control of its fiscal affairs, the Great Recession hit and Barbour was forced to cut budgets. It did not go unnoticed that he chose to take the budget ax first to public education.

But it should be noted that as governor, Barbour, just as he did this week, talked forcefully and often about the importance of public education to the overall health of the state.

This week Barbour, who has helped form a political action committee in support of Cochran, could be heard again saying, as he did during his tenure in office, “Education is the No. 1 economic development issue and No. 1 quality of life issue in Mississippi and every other state.”

Barbour said he believes in Mississippi a Republican who does not support public education will have a difficult time winning.

Would a McDaniel victory change that thinking?

True, every politician says he or she supports public education. But support can mean different things to different people.

It is worth noting that Barbour, while he bumped heads with the education establishment at times on budget issues, did not expend political capital on issues that are or paramount importance to some in the Republican Party, specifically those elements that might relate more to the Tea Party.

While the governor might have paid lip service on school choice, school vouchers and even charter schools, he did not expend much political capital on those issues. He did try without much success to tackle the contentious issue of school district consolidation.

More focus has been spent on those issues under the new administration of Gov. Phil Bryant where Republicans for the first time since the 1800s control both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion.

Still, there has been some restraint in dealing with those issues – perhaps more restraint that some elements of the Republican Party might like. As a member of the Mississippi Legislature, McDaniel is squarely in the camp of those who would support more dramatic actions, such as vouchers and school choice.

Perhaps a McDaniel victory in a U.S. Senate race would embolden those Republicans to push those issues more forcefully in the state Legislature.

It would be ironic to hear a Republican forcefully make that argument.

Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or(662) 946-9931.