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Targeting the existence of public schools

About a year ago, when Rick Santorum's presidential campaign was still in its infancy, he included an interesting target in a list of societal enemies:

About a year ago, when Rick Santorum's presidential campaign was still in its infancy, he included an interesting target in a list of societal enemies: public education.

"Just call them what they are," Santorum said. "Public schools? That's a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools."

The former senator has apparently begun targeting public schools all over again.

For the first 150 years, most presidents home-schooled their children at the White House, he said. "Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America? Parents educated their children, because it's their responsibility to educate their children.""Yes the government can help," Mr. Santorum added. "But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic. It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not."

A day later, CBS's Bob Schieffer asked Santorum, "Are you saying that we shouldn't have public schools, now? I mean, I thought public schools were the foundation of American democracy." The Republican presidential hopeful didn't back down, reemphasizing his belief that federal and state governments should not be involved in public education.

This is politically risky rhetoric. There's ample evidence that the American mainstream considers the public education system one of the nation's most cherished institutions, when asked what areas of the public sector most deserve budget cuts, schools invariably come in last.

Indeed, Republican pollsters have advised GOP candidates in recent years to avoid calling for the end of the federal Department of Education, largely because it gives the appearance of hostility towards public education, which is thought to be an electoral loser.

And yet, here we are.

Let's also note that Santorum isn't alone -- other Republican presidential candidates over the last year have also denounced public schools. Ron Paul said last year, "The public school system now is a propaganda machine. They start with our kids even in kindergarten, teaching them about family values, sexual education, gun rights, environmentalism -- and they condition them to believe in so much which is totally un-American."

Michele Bachmann frequently criticized public schools, and Herman Cain went so far as to say there should be no government involvement in education at any level.

What's more, this talk is not uncommon in conservative media. CNSNews' Terry Jeffrey argued not too long ago, "It is time to drive public schools out of business." Townhall columnist Chuck Norris has begun calling public schools "indoctrination camps."

If the right's goal is to lock up the homeschooling vote in advance of the 2012 elections, I would imagine conservatives have succeeded brilliantly.