Santorum’s army of homeschoolers

March 6, 2012

Strapped for cash and paid staff, Rick Santorum has enlisted a ragtag
but politically potent army to keep his campaign afloat: homeschoolers.

Before
winning three primaries on March 6, plus Alabama and Mississippi on
March 13, Santorum was urging homeschoolers to organize rallies, to post
favorable features on social media and to ring doorbells on his behalf.

"Santorum
has been very aggressive in reaching out to the homeschooling
community, especially in the last month," said Rebecca Keliher, co-owner
of Home Educating Family Publishing.

Drawing on his experience as
a homeschooling father of seven, the former Pennsylvania senator has
also sought to rally enthusiasm by pledging to continue that course in
the White House.

"It's a great sacrifice that my wife, Karen, and I
have made to try to give what we think is the best possible opportunity
for our children to be successful," Santorum said March 1 at a campaign
stop in Georgia. "Not just economically, but in a whole lot of other
areas that we think are important—virtue and character and
spirituality."

Rallying homeschoolers could provide a huge boost
to Santorum's bare-bones campaign. The tightly knit and predominantly
Christian communities are famous for furnishing favored candidates with
hundreds of steadfast foot soldiers. Studies show that homeschoolers are
disproportionately likely to vote, donate and volunteer for campaigns.

"When
they find someone who gives credence to the fact that they homeschool,
they tend to be very loyal and active and engaged," said Keliher, a
homeschooling mother of five in Nashville, Tennessee. Many are motivated
by the unwelcome prospect of seeing homeschooling critics elected to
office.

An estimated 2 million children are home educated in the
U.S., according to Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research
Institute. Nearly three-quarters have conservative Christian parents who
seek to instill the moral and religious values that they believe are
lacking in public schools, according to Ray and other experts.

Despite
their growing diversity, homeschoolers also tend to be politically
conservative. "They have an army of volunteers when they want to get
behind a candidate," said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family
Leader, a conservative group in Iowa. "They're great at door knocking,
stuffing mailers and phone calling. They are really the feet on the
ground."

Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense
Association, said Santorum staffers believe that home educators have
already provided a "huge" lift to his insurgent campaign. The Santorum
campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Farris,
a leader in the homeschooling movement, said he will not endorse a
candidate during the GOP primary, but he has praised Santorum profusely
"for his stalwart defense of life, marriage and the rights of parents."

Homeschooling
families often use campaigns as real-world civics lessons, with mothers
taking their children along on afternoons as they make calls and
volunteer at campaign headquarters, Keliher said. "And you have triple
or quadruple the effort when they bring the children," she added.

Santorum
is getting several times that effort with the Duggars, one of the
country's most famous—and largest—homeschooling families. The reality TV
stars and their brood of 19 children have been stumping for Santorum
across the country in a campaign-style bus.

Like the Duggars, many
homeschoolers say Santorum's staunch opposition to abortion and gay
marriage is as important as his experience in home education.

"It's his willingness to speak up for what's true and not back down," said William Estrada, the HSLDA's federal lobbyist.

Estrada
also runs the HSLDA's Generation Joshua program for teenagers. A recent
post on the group's blog portrayed "Sir Santorum" as a gallant knight
preparing to battle the "Knight of Washington."

But not all
homeschoolers support Santorum. Many have a strong independent streak
and favor Texas congressman Ron Paul. "One of the reasons people
homeschool is they don't want anyone, especially the government, telling
them what to do," Keliher said.

Some homeschoolers also take
issue with Santorum's Senate vote for the No Child Left Behind Act,
which increased federal oversight of local schools.

Others accuse
Santorum of enrolling his children in a public cyberschool and sticking
Pennsylvania taxpayers with the bill while he lived in Virginia from
2001–2004.

"In spite of all of his rhetoric about the evils of
public schooling, Santorum had his children enrolled in a public school
but called it 'home school,'" Catherine Dreher, a homeschooling mother
in St. Charles, Missouri, wrote on her blog, The Tiny Libertarian.

Still,
many homeschoolers see Santorum as the most viable candidate and have
begun rallying to his side in large numbers, said Bruce Eagleson of the
National Alliance of Christian Home Education Leadership. "The key for a
candidate is to excite the imagination of homeschoolers," Eagleson
said. "And Santorum has taken charge on that."  —RNS