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A Brief History of the Education Culture Wars: On Santorum’s Legacy, the GOP and School Reform

As Santorum and his cohort stoke a culture war against mainstream education, a history lesson on the GOP's drive to vilify public schools.

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Judging by the applause lines at GOP campaign stops and debates this winter, a significant segment of the Republican electorate understands public education not as a crucial civic institution, nor as a potential path from poverty to the middle class, nor even as a means of individual betterment. Instead, this coalition of religious conservatives and extreme tax-cutters prefers to vilify public schools—and actually, pretty much any traditional educational institution, including liberal arts colleges—as potential corruptors of the nation’s youth; as unwanted interlocutors in that most sacred relationship: the one between a child and her parent.

It is a curious thing, because with some 90 percent of American children enrolled in public schools, there must be significant overlap between the consumers of public education and the approximately one-third of Americans who describe themselves as Tea Party–type conservatives. Never mind: It is clear that in the American political economy, there is nothing unusual about a voter hating and resenting a government program even while relying heavily upon it.

Rick Santorum’s presidential bid looks increasingly quixotic as we head toward Super Tuesday. He clearly represents only a minority of the Republican base. But what his surge made clear is that there was appeal in appointing a sort of national standard-bearer for the culture war against mainstream education, perhaps because  anti-government voters could look up to Santorum, a homeschooling father of seven, as a man who actually lives their values. Disdain for schools has been everywhere in Santorum’s rhetoric, from his ad nauseam boasting about his own family’s homeschooling; to his assertion that government-run public schools are "anachronistic;" to his complaints about comprehensive sex education; to his counterfactual claim that President Obama is “a snob” who opposes vocational training and wants all Americans to be “indoctrinated” by liberal college professors.

In his now-infamous February 24 anti-college rant, Santorum likened parents to God, and children to unformed souls in some idyllic Eden—souls who must be prevented from biting the apple of wicked, corrupting knowledge. “I understand why [President Obama] wants you to go to college,” Santorum said. “He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

In order for parents to have unfettered access to their children’s minds, government must get out of the way. During the February 22 GOP debate in Arizona, Santorum advocated shutting down not only the federal Department of Education but perhaps state departments of education too. “I think the state governments should start to get out of the education business,” he said, “and put it back to the…local [level] and into the community.”

At the same debate, Ron Paul declared, “Once the government takes over the schools, especially at the federal level, then there’s no right position, and you have to argue which prayer, are you allowed to pray?” Newt Gingrich has praised President Obama’s support for charter schools, and once toured the country alongside Mike Bloomberg and Al Sharpton to advocate for national school reform. But in Arizona he promised to “dramatically shrink the federal Department of Education down to doing nothing but research, return all the power…back to the states.”

Mitt Romney alone defended No Child Left Behind, and the idea of federal school improvement efforts more broadly.

Twelve years ago, George W. Bush and John McCain both ran for president as aggressive, accountability-driven school reformers. McCain revised the act in 2008. So it is worth considering what has changed politically to leave Romney out in the cold on these issues among the serious GOP contenders, and pausing to remember just how reactionary the other candidates’ proposals were.