Getting the Government Out of Public Schools

What with his attacks on the president for advancing “phony theology,” and on Mitt Romney for seeking government “bailouts” for the Olympics, Rick Santorum got less attention for his assault on federal and state involvement in public education during his speech to the Ohio Christian Alliance over the weekend.

Those who did notice generally accused Santorum of attacking the very idea of public schools. I have little doubt Santorum is blowing a dog-whistle to home-schoolers and those who think education should be privatized (with or without public subsidies). But he did not, for the record, say he opposed public education: he just said the federal government and the states should have minimal involvement in education generally.

There is however, a pretty substantial overlap between what Santorum said and meant and what he was inaccurately accused of saying. Federal and (especially) state involvement in public education is what makes it possible for public schools to operate in the low-income communities where public education matters most. Overall, federal and state governments provide over half the revenues of K-12 public schools in America. And in poorer areas of the country, inadequate local revenues are only partially offset by higher federal and state education funding.

Santorum did vote in the Senate for No Child Left Behind, which was aimed (inadequately) in part on equalizing educational opportunities through federal dollars. But he now seems to be hell-bent on restoring the maximum degree of educational inequality, and his heretical voting record may actually push him in a direction more reactionary than the one he has embraced in the past.

Rick hasn’t quite called for getting the government out of public schools, but he’s getting close. Public subsidies for sectarian schools strike him as making sense. So, too, does submitting to parents and “neighborhood” authorities for use of public education funds. He’s a solid symbol of the devolution of Republican “thinking” on education policy since George W. Bush took office in 2001.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.