On education policy, Santorum is longtime critic of public school system

Public school advocates beware: Rick Santorum is not a fan.

Like all Republicans running for president, Santorum has pushed for a reduced federal role in education. But more than most of his rivals, the surging GOP contender has also taken direct aim at the foundation of the American education system: public schools.

The former two-term Pennsylvania senator and his wife home-schooled their six children, and he has been a longtime advocate of the approach favored by as many as two million Americans.

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Education policy has not played a central role thus far during the Republican campaign.

Santorum nearly pulled off an upset in the Iowa caucuses by focusing largely on cultural and economic issues. His campaign website makes no mention of education policy on its issues page.

Yet Santorum devoted more than 50 pages of his best-selling 2005 book, It Takes a Family, to the topic, including an extended argument in favor of home-schooling and a sharp critique of “mass education.”

In the socialization of children, he wrote, mass education “is really the aberration, not home-schooling.”

“Never before and never again after their years of mass education will any person live and work in such a radically narrow, age-segregated environment,” Santorum wrote. “It’s amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools.”


He went on: “In a home school, by contrast, children interact in a rich and complex way with adults and children of other ages all the time. In general, they are better-adjusted, more at ease with adults, more capable of conversation, more able to notice when a younger child needs help or comfort, and in general a lot better socialized than their mass-schooled peers.”

Santorum was asked about that section in a June appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” a time when his campaign was garnering little traction. He defended his characterization of public schools as fostering a “weird socialization” among children.

“Where else in America, outside of school, do kids go to a place where they sit with people basically the same age, same socioeconomic group, and interact for, for a defined period of time? That's not what life is like. Life is very different than that,” Santorum said.

He demurred when asked if his views meant that he would support a federal overhaul of education, including the way children congregate in schools.

“I would say that it's not the federal government's job to overhaul public education,” Santorum said. “What I would do is talk about how we need to make some transformation, but it should be left to the states and localities to do that.”

Santorum’s campaign did not respond to a request to expand on his position or his broader education platform. As a senator in Pennsylvania in 2001, he supported then-President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law, which significantly expanded the federal role in education policy by establishing national standards for schools. Campaigning for president a decade later, Santorum says he regrets his vote.

“We all have made mistakes. I will say that one of them was No Child Left Behind,” he said during a campaign appearance in Iowa on New Years’ Eve. “I know there was very good intention there, but it has exploded the federal role in education. It's causing teachers nightmares, which I hear from on a daily basis as I travel around Iowa. And it has maybe served some good purposes in examining why and how poorly our education system is performing. But it's doing nothing, in my opinion, in spite of what some may say even within our own party.”

His reversal on the Bush-era law is emblematic of a broader shift in the Republican Party, which has largely returned to the deep skepticism of federal involvement in education that prevailed in the decades before the younger Bush took office. The rise of the Tea Party, with its strong libertarian and federalist bent, has accelerated that move.

“If anything, [Santorum] seems to have reflected the center of gravity in the Republican Party,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

GOP presidential candidates like Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have pledged to abolish the Department of Education, which was a plank of the Republican Party platform from 1980 to 1996. The proposal was removed in 2000 when Bush led the ticket.

Santorum has stopped short of calling for the department to be scrapped, but he said if elected it would be “substantially smaller than it is now.”

The GOP front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has spoken more favorably of No Child Left Behind and has even praised some of President Obama’s initiatives in education policy.

“We’re just in a different era,” said Michael Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational advocacy organization.

Petrilli said Santorum “represents the tension” in the Republican Party between advocating federally directed reforms in education and merely returning the bulk of authority and responsibility for schools to the states and local government. That debate is playing out in Congress, where House Republicans have proposed a series of bills to reform and reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

In his advocacy of private school tuition vouchers and more parental choice, Santorum is “definitely within the mainstream of the Republican Party on education,” Petrilli said.

But his writings and comments criticizing public schools stand out. “That’s a little bit more on the fringe,” Petrilli said.

Hess called it “an unusual argument” and surmised that the Obama campaign would welcome the chance to go up against a GOP nominee holding that view of public schools.

“It’s not illegitimate,” Hess said of Santorum’s advocacy of home schooling, but he said public opinion polls show “there’s little stomach for it among the vast majority of Americans.”

Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said 90 percent of the nation’s children are educated in public schools. “That’s where they’re going to be for a long time,” he said. “The future of the country is in public schools, not home schools or private schools.”

Santorum’s home-schooling of his own children generated controversy in 2004, when a school district in Pennsylvania asked him to pay back about $100,000 in taxpayer funds he received to enroll his children in a local cyber-education program. The request was made after the disclosure that Santorum and his family spent most of their time in Virginia. Santorum withdrew his children from the program.