When Santorum was a Pennsylvania senator, he got a Pittsburgh-area school district to help pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for his children to receive online schooling. (Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is scornful of the government’s hand in public education, 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 cyber-school 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 cyber school and resumed home schooling after Penn Hills officials complained about the tuition payments. Students in cyber schools 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 cyber schools, 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.