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John Hood: Education debate doesn’t need to be vicious

By John Hood

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s economy is opening up after nearly two months of lockdown. I wish the reopening was faster, broader, and more reflective of the varying conditions across the state. I recognize others strongly disagree. But at least the question of whether to begin rebuilding our businesses and restoring our freedoms has now been answered in the affirmative.

Which still leaves many other critical questions unanswered.

North Carolinians will be grappling with the effects of our COVID-19 epidemic for months if not years to come. Some businesses are gone for good, as are the jobs attached to them.

For states and localities, massive deficits loom. Major community institutions, from hospitals and universities to humanitarian charities and arts organizations, face grave risks and difficult choices.

For state policymakers, few decisions will be as challenging, or as broadly consequential, as those involving elementary and secondary education. For many North Carolina parents, Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order wasn’t the event that upended their lives. That had already happened when their children’s schools closed. Their child-care options dwindled and then disappeared, leaving no option for many other than working from home so they could watch their kids.

Although many educators made heroic efforts to come up with stopgap content online, parents soon realized they would have to become their children’s main teachers for the rest of the school year, a task for which many parents felt unprepared and with which many became increasingly frustrated.

While some families may find homeschooling more attractive than they once thought and continue the practice in whole or in part in the fall, for most there will be no practical alternative to enrollment in public or private schools. So, North Carolina’s schools will reopen. And North Carolinians are going to have lots of arguments about it.

Should the testing program and other requirements eased this spring for public schools be reinstituted for 2020-21? Should district, charter, and private schools all be eligible to receive COVID-impact funds from state and federal coffers? Should eligibility requirements for North Carolina’s voucher program be adjusted so that families reeling from job and income losses from the epidemic and lockdown can keep their children in the schools of their choice?

I have strong opinions about these and other education questions. For now, however, I will argue only that whatever you think about them, try to find a way to advocate your position without attacking the intelligence, honesty, or intentions of those who disagree.

For several years, I have co-chaired the steering committee of the North Carolina Leadership Forum. Based at Duke University, NCLF brings together a diverse set of leaders from government, business, and nonprofits to discuss controversial issues and model constructive engagement across political differences.

The 2019 cohort — including state legislators, local officials, educators, business executives, nonprofit directors, and other civic leaders — focused on the subject of school choice in North Carolina. During the yearlong program, we debated every aspect of the topic vigorously. But the participants kept their heads, strove to learn from leaders with whom they disagreed, and largely avoided the partisan talking points and bad insult comedy that, all too often, crowd out real conversation in public discourse.

How much disagreement was there? We gave NCLF participants two value statements to consider regarding school-choice policy: 1) “parents are able to exercise choice” and 2) “schools have diverse populations.” Naturally, many if not most participants thought both were important goals. But when forced to rank one above the other, about half the participating leaders picked parental choice as most important. The other half picked diversity.

Despite this seemingly stark divide, you might be surprised to learn that the group found common ground on a number of specific policies.

And even when they didn’t, most came away thinking that, as one participant put it, “there are good, well-intended people on both sides of the issue.”

As policymakers struggle to adapt North Carolina’s education policies to our new realities, let’s all keep that insight in mind.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Email him at jhood@johnlocke.org.

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