Educate your children at home like me, Santorum tells America's parents

Far right cheer as candidiate launches attack on 'anachronism' of public schooling

New York

Rick Santorum, whose shoestring campaign for the Republican nomination for president continues to gain momentum, has launched a broadside against public education, saying it would be better if parents taught their children at home than send them to "factory schools".

Speaking to the Ohio Christian Alliance at the weekend, he said the idea that governments should run schools was a relic of the Industrial Revolution and an "anachronism". The former Senator for Pennsylvania is among the less than 3 per cent of American parents who home-school their children for religious reasons, and his decision to put the issue on the election agenda raised cheers from the Republican party's religious right.

Mr Santorum accompanied his comments with an attack on President Barack Obama for peddling "phony theology" and policies that were not rooted in the Bible – an attack that Democrats said echoed the conspiracy theories on the far right that the president was a secret Muslim.

The rise of Mr Santorum, plus a string of political controversies over gay marriage and contraception in recent weeks, has sharply shifted the focus of the presidential campaign away from economic issues and back to the social divisions that dominated the past decade.

Mr Santorum beat the Republican frontrunner, the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in the Iowa caucus this year in part because of grassroots support from home-schoolers in the state. Although he has not previously made education a plank of his campaign, it is well known that he and his wife, both staunch Catholics, teach their seven children at home and he has written before about the "weird socialisation" of public schools.

Mr Santorum said at the weekend that for the first 150 years after Independence most US presidents home-schooled their children. "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," he said.

Mr Santorum leads Mr Romney by 34 per cent to 30 per cent in polls in the next state to vote, Michigan, where Mr Romney grew up. He had been expected to win comfortably, but if the state falls to Mr Santorum, the air of invincibility around Mr Romney could be shattered for good.

Mr Santorum's religious conservatism has excited Republicans in a way that Mr Romney's cool managerial style has not.

But Republican leaders fear the consequences of an election campaign that appeals only to the hardcore of the party, particularly when polls say the economy is still the No 1 issue for voters.

In a sign of what could come if Mr Santorum faces Mr Obama in November, the former Pennsylvania Senator accused the President on Saturday of "oppressing religious freedom" for proposing that Catholic organisations must include contraception in healthcare insurance for employees. He denied that calling Mr Obama's views a "phony theology" amounted to questioning his religion, saying: "If the president says he's a Christian he's a Christian."

Michigan Republicans go to the polls next Tuesday, along with those Arizona, where Mr Romney's campaign suffered a setback yesterday. The co-chairman of the Romney campaign there, a county sheriff who made national headlines for his tough stance on illegal immigration, resigned after a newspaper published allegations that he threatened to deport a former boyfriend, a Mexican, when the man refused to keep quiet about their relationship.

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