In March, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum expressed his disdain for 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.”

Campaigning in South Carolina over the weekend, Santorum went even further. (via Steve M.)

Rick Santorum, a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, even raised the specter of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy in a speech here Friday night while explaining why his grandfather emigrated to the U.S. His uncle, he said, “used to get up in a brown shirt and march and be told how to be a good little fascist.”

“I don’t know, maybe they called it early pre-K or something like that, that the government sponsored to get your children in there so they can indoctrinate them,” Santorum said.

There is a fair amount of this talk going around. At a home-schooling rally in Iowa in March, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain — all Republicans who’ve expressed an interest in the presidential race — raised the specter of ending public education in the United States altogether.

This also includes far-right media. CNSNews’ Terry Jeffrey argued a few weeks ago, “It is time to drive public schools out of business.” Townhall columnist Chuck Norris has begun calling public schools “indoctrination camps.”

But I’d note for context that Santorum is a former two-term senator — and he just won a straw poll in South Carolina, which arguably puts him in the tier above folks like Paul and Cain. And in public, he’s comparing public schools to fascism.

Keep in mind, polls show 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.

And yet, here we are.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.