Santorum lends extremes to a movement that should find a center

Rick Santorum
The GOP presidential hopeful is both a blessing and a curse for home-schooling advocates.
 Photo by Marc Nozell

The spotlight shining on Rick Santorum’s educational
philosophy is both a blessing and a curse for home-schooling parents and their
advocates. As the Los Angeles Times noted over the
weekend, the Republican presidential hopeful has emerged as the most prominent
home schooler in America, a fact that gives momentum to a movement that is
growing in popularity to include, by some estimates, nearly two million people
nationwide. But the same story also identified Santorum as the GOP leader who
“bashes public schools” and disparages the government’s hand in keeping
education mired in the Industrial Age.  

A greater range of home-school practitioners is making it
harder to draw broad conclusions about the movement, but most commentators and
journalists still see it far enough outside the mainstream to develop anything
more than a caricature. Hence, readers end up with nonsense like
that from Dana Goldstein
, who writes in Slate that liberals who home school
their children are violating their own progressive values by sowing distrust in
public institutions. But however unreasonable it might be for Goldstein to draw
upon extremes, Santorum’s weekend jeremiad only invites a similar inquisition.

That’s unfortunate for a home-schooling movement that
demands more nuance to better capture the varying motivations of its adherents.
“Home schoolers are now a diverse population,” Stanford political scientist Rob Reich wrote in 2005. “Indeed, it is easy to observe a kind of internecine
warfare among the two most prominent advocacy groups, the Christian-based [Home
School Legal Defense Association] and the more secular and inclusive National
Home Education Network.” The wildly different ways states regulate home
schooling make it difficult to gather data on the emerging trends, but the federal
government last estimated, conservatively, that there were 1.5 million home
schoolers nationwide, a 36 percent increase from 2003. Advocates say there are
as many as two million children schooled at home, a number that would rival the
nationwide charter school enrollment.

Santorum is hardly the first to call for a transformation of our
one-size-fits-all public education system.

The trends also are blurred by the escalating enrollment of
online learners at home. In theory, there’s little that separates a “home
school” from a “virtual school” until we get into the arena of regulation, a
word that instinctively unites most home schoolers in opposition. For the sake
of their cause, home-schooling parents and advocates may have to overcome that
instinct, especially as states contract more with online learning providers in
ways that redefine the “factory” model of education that occupies so much of
Santorum’s thoughts on schooling. Greater technologies can transform the
home-school experience, but they’re not cheap. Legislatures can give home
schoolers access to the growing number of virtual charter schools state by
state, but it is reasonable to expect that they’ll ask for some account of
their academic progress in return.  

These are the
subtleties that escaped Santorum during his address to the Ohio Christian
Alliance, and the pool of campaign reporters got their story as a result. What
the press largely disregarded was the unoriginality of the candidate’s
argument. Santorum is hardly the first to call for a transformation of our
one-size-fits-all public education system, and one can go back to Ronald Reagan
to find a more influential threat to reduce or eliminate the federal role in
education. But Santorum is our presidential candidate today, and he’s feeding
extremes to a hungry national debate on a cause that, at least among a growing
number of followers, is searching for the center.

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