Opinion: Daily Journal

A Politics of Ignorance

RALEIGH – I’ve had a conceptual breakthrough.

For more than 20 years, I have debated left-wing politicians and commentators on education policy. As an advocate of greater choice and competition, higher academic standards, and more efficient expenditure of education dollars, I have argued that these policies will boost student achievement, parental satisfaction, and economic competitiveness while reducing cost to taxpayers.

But it was all a waste of time. I had naively assumed that defenders of the current, wasteful government education monopoly shared my goals but disagreed with my means. Now I know better.

My conceptual breakthrough came during recent battles over student-assignment policies in Wake County and school-choice proposals in the North Carolina General Assembly.

In both cases, conservative reformers have argued that the current system fails to provide parents with enough control over their children’s education. Forced-busing schemes at the local level rob parents of choice and treat their children as bundles of socioeconomic data, not as individuals. And protecting the government’s 90 percent share of K-12 education enrollment means trapping families of low-to-moderate incomes in schools that aren’t meeting their needs, while protecting mediocre schools from the rigors of competition.

The results are clear. In Wake County, which has preserved busing policies that the vast majority of North Carolina districts have long since abandoned, disadvantaged students don’t even score at the state average. Unfortunately, even that state average is underwhelming, with public schools failing to graduate large numbers of children and failing to provide a true high-school education to many of the children who do graduate.

Rather than construct reasonable, fact-based responses to the conservative critique of North Carolina education policy, the Left has resorted to character assassination. Advocates of neighborhood schools are racists and segregationists, they say. Advocates of tuition tax credits, charter schools, and other school-choice policies are racists and elitists, they say.

I finally get it: these attacks reflect the psychology of projection. Liberal defenders of the status quo question the honesty of conservative reformers because they, the liberals, haven’t been honest about their own intentions.

Of course, they are right. I shouldn’t have been taking them at face value for all these years. Recognizing that truth finally led me to the realization that liberals don’t deny the educational benefit of school choice and other conservative reforms. They fear it. All along, their real intention has been not to raise the level of education in North Carolina, but to keep it low.

You see, most liberals are sympathetic to Democratic candidates and causes. They know that, in general, as voters become better educated they tend to vote Republican. High-school graduates are more Republican than high-school dropouts. College graduates are more Republican than college dropouts. Only at the post-graduate level does the effect get a bit more complicated – those who get degrees in medicine, business, engineering, or the hard sciences also tend to lean Republican, while lawyers, social scientists, and other professionals who derive significant income from government institutions and grants tend to lean Democratic.

Why does education level correlate with voting behavior? Perhaps educated voters are better able to detect and disbelieve the simplistic propaganda of modern liberals. Or perhaps they come to believe that their interests are more aligned with conservative fiscal and regulatory policies likely to create economic dynamism and private-sector jobs.

Whatever the particular causal factors may be, I submit that my breakthrough theory better fits the data than do other theories based on the improbable notion that liberals actually believe the nonsense they spout. No, they just don’t want the next generation of North Carolinians to become better educated and vote Republican.

Surely no rational person with the best interests of schoolchildren at heart could possibly believe it would be bad to empower their parents with school choice, unleash their schools to hire and fire educators based on merit, and assess their knowledge with independent, rigorous tests so that parents, educators, and taxpayers can make better decisions about how to spend tax dollars.

So, do you think I’m being unfair to anti-reform liberals?

Well, isn’t turnabout fair play?

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.