WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is scornful of the government's hand in public education, saying schooling is the task of parents and pointing out that he and his wife have home-schooled their seven children.

Yet back when Santorum was a senator from Pennsylvania, he got a Pittsburgh-area school district to help pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for his children to receive online schooling.

It's a bit of history that's unknown to most of those now hearing Santorum pitch for conservative votes he needs to overtake GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Santorum says he wants to dramatically curtail the role states and the federal government play in running schools.

"Not only do I believe the federal government should get out of the education business, I think the state government should start to get out of the education business and put it back with the local and into the community," Santorum said in a recent debate in Arizona with his GOP rivals.

He mocks America's schools as "factories" that stand as "anachronistic" relics of the Industrial Revolution and says he would home-school his kids in the White House if he becomes president. The Los Angeles Times dubbed him perhaps "the most prominent" home-schooler in America.

In the fall of 2004, Santorum's use of tax dollars to pay for his kids' home schooling became controversial because his family was primarily living in Leesburg, Va., an outer suburb of Washington. Following a local newspaper report, the Penn Hills School District near Pittsburgh tried to recover about $73,000 that it contended the state wrongly sent to an Internet-based charter school because although the Santorums owned a house in the school district, they were living out of state. The Pennsylvania Education Department in 2006 agreed to pay the district $55,000 to settle the dispute.

The cyberschool controversy dogged Santorum through his 2006 Senate re-election bid and contributed to his 18-point loss to Democrat Bob Casey. Santorum's campaign did not respond this week to questions about his family's online instruction, and it's not known whether his children received teaching at home in addition to what they got online.

The Santorums withdrew their children from the cyberschool and resumed home schooling after Penn Hills officials complained about the tuition payments. Students in cyberschools log onto computers to access their assignments and teachers.

The National Home Education Research Institute, which specializes in home-school research, estimated in spring 2010 there were more than 2 million home-schooled students, about 3 percent of the school-age population. Brian D. Ray, president of the institute, said while he didn't know what percentage of those students use online charter schools, he has watched it grow significantly over the past five years.

Pennsylvania law requires school districts to pay for resident students who enroll in cyberschools, and Santorum at the time of the controversy said the Penn Hills house was his family's legal residence and that he paid taxes for it.

Erin Vecchio, a former Penn Hills school board member and former head of the local Democratic committee, at the time questioned whether it was proper for the school district to pay the cyberschool tuition for five of Santorum's children because they spent most of their time at his home in Virginia. She said Santorum should have reimbursed the district for the tuition costs.

"He should have been held accountable for that money, but he wasn't," Vecchio said in a recent telephone interview with the AP. "When he found a program that he could use to his advantage, he used it. That's the thing with Rick Santorum."

Vecchio said the fight over Santorum's residency was ironic, given how Santorum had made challenging the residency of Democrat Doug Walgren a key campaign issue when he toppled the incumbent and won his House seat in 1990. Santorum slammed the seven-term representative for living with his family in McLean, Va.

Santorum and his wife, Karen, now own a home in Great Falls, Va., an affluent Washington suburb. They moved there after Santorum's 2006 Senate loss.

Acknowledging that its own rules were confusing, the Pennsylvania Education Department in 2006 agreed to settle the dispute by repaying the district. The state Education Department said the money was not a reimbursement, but an acknowledgment that the department gave conflicting rules about when a district can challenge the state's decision to withhold cyberschool tuition fees from the district.

On the campaign trail, Santorum's candidacy has been boosted by Christian home-school advocates, evangelical pastors and tightly knit networks of conservative activists who helped him win Iowa's leadoff caucuses and a three-state sweep of contests on Feb. 7. Limited government has been a big part of his pitch.

Santorum now says he regrets voting for the sweeping No Child Left Behind education overhaul. He's called for a significantly smaller Education Department but would not eliminate it. He's also criticized early childhood education programs as an attempt by government to "indoctrinate your children."

Santorum says government can only do so much to educate kids, and that parents bear the prime responsibility.

"Yes, the government can help," Santorum said during a recent stop in Ohio, which holds a key contest in the upcoming March 6 Super Tuesday contests. "But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic."

He said it dates from the nation's industrialization, "when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not."

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