Rick Santorum’s Catholicism, the Tea Party, and Education Reform

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Once upon a time, Rick Santorum was a major supporter of federally mandated, standards and accountability-driven education reform. As a senator, he was a high-profile backer of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, even after his amendment mandating the teaching of intelligent design was stripped from the law. When he ran for reelection in 2006 against Democrat Bob Casey, Santorum filled out a questionnaire from the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group. In the document, he boasts about bucking his party to propose "increasing the appropriations for health and education programs by $7 billion in 2007," in order to fund gifted and talented programs and online education options in math and science. 

Fast forward to 2011, and Santorum–like Mitt Romney–can't seem to run away fast enough from his centrist education record. Santorum's new tax plan calls not for protecting education funding, but for cutting all social spending, including spending on schools, by $5 trillion over five years. In a CNN interview last week, Santorum said, "I talk all the time about having voted for No Child Left Behind. And, you know, it was a mistake. You know, it was a … a dumb thing to vote for because it gave more federal control over education, which was something that, you know, I didn’t advocate for, but I voted for.”

What happened? In short: the Tea Party. As I described in an August Slate article, the Tea Party's close alliance with the Christian Right has replaced the bipartisan, standards-and-accountability consensus on education with a stark, ideological battle between Republicans like Romney, who continue to see public schools as important anti-poverty and economic-competitiveness tools, and Republicans like Michele Bachmann, who have long seen schools as potential corrupters of the nation's youth–as institutions that illegitimately challenge the rightful role of parents in shaping children's moral, political, religious, and sexual belief systems. 

Santorum is uncomfortably wedged in the middle of this debate. Like Bachmann, he and his wife homeschool their children, in large part because of their fundamentalist religious beliefs. But Santorum is not an evangelical Christian; he is Catholic. Accordingly, like many Catholics, he has a more sanguine view of government's role in shaping the individual. Instead of railing against the public schools, he has historically fought to inject conservative social values into the curriculum, while arguing for public education to play a proactive role in ensuring economic mobility.  

As more policy contrasts are drawn between Santorum and Romney in the coming days, it will be interesting to see how both candidates speak about education–and if they speak about it at all. Santorum's campaign website never mentions school reform. Romney's site is similary silent on K-12 education, which is conspicuously absent from the sections on "human capital," "labor," and "fiscal policy." Their reluctance to discuss the issue is a sign of a deep divide within the Republican Party.

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