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Opinion Why Doug Ducey would make a great conservative alternative to Trump

Gov. Doug Ducey (R) gives his State of the State address at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 10. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

PHOENIX — With two trenchant sentences, the nation’s most successful governor of the 21st century defines the significance of his signature achievement: “Fifty years ago, politicians stood in the schoolhouse door and wouldn’t let minorities in. Today, union-backed politicians stand in the schoolhouse door and won’t let minorities out.”

Hence Gov. Doug Ducey’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which was enacted this year to provide universal school choice in grades K-12. Every Arizona family is eligible to receive about $7,000 per student per year to pay for private school tuition, home schooling, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, programs for special-needs pupils and more. Money “follows the child,” Ducey says, because “Arizona funds students, not systems.”

Although the legislature simultaneously increased public school funding by $1 billion, ESA was ferociously opposed by the teachers’ unions, whose confidence in the quality of their schools can be gauged by their fear of competition. A union attempt to repeal ESA by referendum failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, partly because of a group (Decline to Sign) in which, Ducey said here last week, Black leaders were disproportionately active.

Writing in National Affairs on “The Arizona Miracle,” journalist James K. Glassman notes that 25 years ago Arizona had about one-third of the nation’s charter schools, with 21,000 students (3 percent of the state’s public school pupils, the nation’s higher proportion of charter-school students). Today, the figures are 232,000, and 21 percent.

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Ducey, who is exiting after the permissible two terms, might see his program attacked by the newly elected Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, who attended a private school but ran on a platform hostile toward school choice. If Ducey’s program survives, it can be a template for other states. In which case, Ducey would rank with Horace Mann, the 19th-century innovator, as a transformer of American education.

Ducey has been a full-spectrum conservative: Arizona has the nation’s lowest (2.5 percent) flat income tax, and a $1.4 billion rainy day fund. Nineteen states have emulated Arizona’s pioneering law that requires students to pass a civics test before graduating from high school. Second Chance Center programs help inmates reenter society. Legislation protects girls’ sports from unfair competition, and children from irreversible gender reassignment surgery before age 18.

During a September speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, Ducey deplored the fact that “a dangerous strain of big-government activism has taken hold” in the Republican Party, and “for liberty’s sake we need to fight it with every fiber in our beings”: “A vocal corner of conservative politics is defined more by attitude — and anger — than commitment to a specific set of ideals.” Such conservatives “are just as happy bossing us around and telling us — and businesses — how to lead our lives as the progressive left is. … And yes, a good many small-government conservatives have morphed into bullies — people who are very comfortable using government power to tell companies and people how to lead their lives … we are sharpening the knife the left will eventually use on us.”

Ducey thereby distanced himself from national conservatives, and perhaps from Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a brawler against woke corporations (e.g., Disney). Ducey also rejected excessive judicial deference to congressional majorities and the discretion of federal agencies. Deference often is a dereliction of the judicial duty to protect the separation of powers, compelling Congress to legislate rather than delegate essentially legislative powers to executive agencies. Ducey endorsed “judicial engagement,” predicting that an array of federal agencies “are about to get spanked, slapped down and reversed” by the Supreme Court applying the Constitution “to rein in the regulatory leviathan that threatens to strangle growth, opportunity and individual liberties.”

Ducey, like Arizona’s first presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, is a cheerful malcontent. Like Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee, Ducey says, “I’m a conservative. I’m just not angry about it.” A plurality of Americans call themselves conservative, and probably a majority of this plurality are not angry but are embarrassed by today’s politics. Ducey, Lee, DeSantis and other governors — including New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, Texas’s Greg Abbott, Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson, Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin — make a strong Republican bench. Surely one of them will prevent Donald Trump from being, through a third election cycle, the florid face of one of the two parties that since 1856 have framed American politics.