In Manhattan, poll-topping Herman Cain makes the case (to Joel Klein) for decentralized education

Herman Cain. (Facebook)
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Last night, four candidates for the Republican presidential nomination materialized in Manhattan—two in person, and two by satellite—to take questions on education policy from News Corp. executive and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor Paul Gigot.

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry didn't bother to appear at all, which, in a conventional race, would have made the forum, co-hosted by the College Board and News Corporation, feel like an event for the also-rans. But the organizers, who included former Hillary Clinton spokesman Peter Kauffmann, who now works for the College Board, and former Schumer and Bloomberg spokesman Bradley Tusk, had locked up Herman Cain early on. And so, as luck would have it, they had a front-running headliner. Sort of.

Cain, who is performing particularly well in national polls and rejects the press' typical focus on the early primary states, had initially agreed to appear at the College Board event in person, but then he turned out to be in Arkansas. About a dozen reporters, packed into a fourth floor press room of the Hilton in midtown, watched his answers via satellite. 

The three other candidates who took part were Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich.

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The Republicans, as a field, have been harshly critical of President Obama's education policy and the federal Department of Education, and discussion was mostly about the steps each candidate would take to cut the federal government's role in running the country's public schools.

Cain, who was the first candidate to appear, said it would be "premature" to promise he would abolish the Department of Education, saying he would prefer to wait until he was in the White House to assess its function and performance, "once all the facts are considered." (This has been a theme of Cain's.)

Cain said he wasn't overly concerned about some states being left behind others—Alabama was last night's example—if the federal government ended its involvement in education, because "I happen to believe the forces of competition over time, will force them to make changes."

Cain rejected the notion that lawmakers in Washington should treat college education as a type of entitlement program by providing Pell Grants and other resources for students.

"The people within the state, the people within the communities, are the ones who ultimately have those responsibilities," he said.

As for the high cost of college, Cain held himself up as someone who wasn't held back by the fact that he had to opt for a more affordable college institution (Morehouse College) than the Ivies.

"If you want a college education in America, I believe people can get it if they're determined to get it," he said. "They might have to work a little harder, they might have to work a little longer."

After Cain disappeared from the screen, Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, joined Klein and Gigot on the stage.

"It's great to be in New York," said Santorum, who has mostly cast himself this year as an Iowa-friendly Christian cultural warrior.

Santorum made the case for school choice that includes religious institutions—"if the parents have the choice, I don't see the violation of the Constitution," he said—but Klein, who is currently the head of News Corp.'s education division, cited his own experience as chancellor in questioning the wisdom of involving public schools in a values debate.

Santorum's response, essentially, was that it's too late to worry about that.

"They are in the middle of those things right now," said Santorum. "We're in New York City, they teach kids to use condoms, that's in the middle of it."

Santorum said parents would have to make difficult choices in his system—say, with a talented dance student who they might want to send to school in New York despite the values conflict—but without choice, the government was doing parents a disservice.

"Your children are going to be inculcated with values that are inconsistent with your moral framework," he said. "We shouldn't do that to parents in this country."

After his remarks, Santorum appeared at a podium in the press room, standing alone, awkwardly, for a few beats while reporters sluggishly got up from their desks. When they did, they mostly wanted to know about Rick Perry, whose campaign has indicated the candidate might not bother with any of the upcoming debates.

"Hiding from the public by skipping debates and skipping forums, like we have seen several of the candidates do here today, is trying to hide the ball," he said.

Santorum (who once called the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill an "affront to personal freedom and liberty in this country") said he believes in "transparency," and that he wouldn't "hide behind $15 to $20 million dollars of slick ads to try to sell me to the voters."

Santorum has raised just over $1 million dollars so far.

Bachmann appeared via satellite after Santorum. She talked about her promise to dismantle the federal Department of Education. Several times, she mentioned "Lyndon Baines Johnson" and the Great Society program that led to an increase in federal spending on education. She also noted, not approvingly, that the Department of Education was set up as its own cabinet-level department under Jimmy Carter.

Like the other candidates, she took a swipe at Obama's recently announced initiative to reduce monthly payments on student loans.

"This will lead to a bubble in education," Bachmann said. "I fear that we are creating another bubble and the federal government is inducing that bubble and contributing to that bubble."

Former House speaker Gingrich, who settled comfortably onto the stage as soon as Bachmann had disappeared, said the student loan effort "is a Ponzi scheme even by Governor Perry standards."

Gingrich said Klein had "done a brilliant job" in New York City, and praised Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, with whom Gingrich had promoted charter schools, alongside activist and current MSNBC host Al Sharpton.

"Truly a fairly unusual trio," as Gingrich put it.

He stopped short of calling for the abolition of the Department of Education, saying he's prefer it "become a research and education center."

He plugged for-profit colleges (and his wife's book about Ellis the Elephant), and praised Perry for beginning a program in Texas that would allow students to finish college quicker than the usual four years, for those who are so motivated.

After his remarks, Gingrich got the same question from reporters as Santorum did about Perry and the debates.

"I don't see how somebody can say that they can't debate Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul, but they'll be ready to debate Barack Obama," Gingrich said. "I think Governor Perry would find it an enormous mistake not to go to the debates. And frankly, he'd look pretty silly. Why would any Republican want to nominate somebody who couldn't stand on the same platform with us, and the thought that he's then going to stand on the platform with Obama?"

Gingrich corrected a reporter who said he was polling in single digits (his support among Republican primary voters was pegged at 10 percent in a recent CBS News poll), and shrugged off a question about his lack of infrastructure in Iowa, by saying he'd be opening five offices there soon. He said he's now running a consistent third, and reminded the press that it was a two-man race between Perry and Romney not too long ago.

"With that kind of volatility, I wouldn't worry too much about where we are," he said.