It’s common for political partisans to treat their opponents as evil geniuses who use the levers of government to achieve nefarious ends.

It’s also common for political partisans to portray their opponents as bungling fools who fail continually in their attempts to run government effectively.

Whether anyone within the world of politics and public policy qualifies as a clear genius or an irredeemable bungler, one thing remains certain: He can’t be both at the same time.

That fact came to mind as this observer read a recent review of the book “The Marxification of Education.” Author James Lindsay posits that Marxists have engaged in a systematic takeover of American public schools for the purpose of “indoctrination and brainwashing of our children.” That’s the summary from Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Pondiscio doesn’t buy it.

Writing in Commentary, he warns “Marxist revolutionaries” that “there will be no end to your frustration” if they aim to achieve a worker’s paradise through the nation’s school systems.

“This is not intended as praise of our public schools,” Pondiscio explains. “No one will mistake our contemporary K–12 system for a bulwark of anti-Communist, patriotic sentiment. It’s simply that American education lacks the rigor, focus, and self-discipline to march in lockstep on anything, let alone the commitment and perseverance required to whip schoolchildren into tiny Red Brigades, an American Komsomol.”

“We can’t even agree on the rock-bottom basics: how to teach kids to read, or whether a student who assaults a teacher should be suspended or just needs a hug,” he adds. “Turn America’s 3.7 million teachers into ideologues committed to revolution? It would be easier to turn house cats into a synchronized-swimming team.”

With 14,000 distinct school districts and 100,000 separate schools, plus a “professional culture that empowers even unproven and inexperienced teachers to decide what to teach,” it’s hard to imagine anyone imposing a political orthodoxy throughout public education.

That might mean good news for those worried about the Marxists. It’s not necessarily good news for the future of American education.

“The defining characteristic of America’s K–12 public education is not that Marxists are in control of it, but that no one is,” Pondiscio argues. “The quality of education a child receives can vary wildly not just from state to state, or from one district or school to another, but across the hallway of the very same school.”

“The greatest misconception among those who have never taught (Lindsay gives no indication of having set foot as an adult inside a school) is the assumption that states, districts, or school administrators approve curricula and that teachers mechanically implement them,” Pondiscio explains. “In many schools and districts, curriculum ‘adoption’ is barely a suggestion. Nearly every teacher in America creates, adapts, or ‘differentiates’ lessons, often scouring the Internet for teaching materials on the widely accepted idea that they are uniquely positioned to ‘meet the children where they are’ and determine how best to engage bored, struggling, or uninspired students.”

Saddled with “choose-your-own adventure teaching” and the “fad-happy nature” of education, opportunities abound for educational mischief. Pondiscio describes ideal conditions for “ideologues, opportunists, and grifters of every imaginable stripe to peddle curricula, programs, and professional development for teachers. … But no reliable mechanism exists for the imposition at scale of their various projects.”

Instead of Lindsay’s “cunningly competent ideologues,” Pondiscio sees “decades of failure, indifference (if not hostility) to public accountability, and an obdurate refusal to train teachers for classroom success.”

It’s not that the book completely misses the mark about problems plaguing American schools. “Parents are right to be alarmed over the rising prominence of ‘social and emotional learning’ and mental-health mission creep in public education, schools’ enthusiastic usurping of parental authority, and teachers’ unabashed activism on behalf of social-justice causes,” Pondiscio writes. Yet he diverges from Lindsay in ascribing those real problems to a high-level nationwide conspiracy.

The people who run our schools cannot be both geniuses — good or evil — and inept bunglers at the same time.

It’s a lesson worth noting outside the discussion of national education policy. North Carolina’s reformers have spent much time and energy in recent years working to counteract the impact of harmful education fads in this state’s schools. As they approach that task, they will need to keep in mind the limits of a top-down approach.

Just as committed Marxists are unlikely to take a stranglehold over the schools, attempts to dictate significant ideological or cultural change from Raleigh will face similar obstacles. That fact should help reformers focus their attention on the most effective tools at their disposal.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.