In a new essay at The Nation, I trace the recent history of the Republican Party's school reform agenda, looking at how Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney started on the same side–pro-federal intervention–but ended up in drastically different places:
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.