Fantasy Politics

by John Derbyshire


Sorry to be late with SOTU commentary, but I haven’t seen anyone pick up on this particular point.

The President said the following thing: “I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.”

Now education, even more so than immigration, dwells in a public policy Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Almost anything that any public person says on this topic is sheer fantasy, unmoored from any actual facts or any acquaintance with the behavior of actual human beings.

Even after discounting for all that, though, the President’s “call” deserves some kind of prize for detachment from reality.

In the 2007–08 year, the latest I can find on the NCES database, ten U.S. states had high school graduation rates of less than 70 percent. (They were: Alabama, Alaska, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada — the lowest at 51.3 percent — New Mexico, and South Carolina. The graduation rates closely follow Moynihan’s Law, being inversely proportional to the distance of a state capital from the Canadian border.)

Individual localities and schools often have much lower rates. Theodore Roosevelt HS, here in New York City, was closed in 2006 after posting a four-year graduation rate of three percent.

So hundreds of thousands of teenagers nationwide figure that book learning just isn’t their thing and quit school to do something else. This one goes to work in his Dad’s business; that one decides his time will be better spent mowing neighbor’s lawns for a nickel the square yard (and ends up with a prosperous little landscaping business in one case known to me); another one goes footloose for a few years, doing any odd jobs he can find, before deciding he’d made a mistake and going to community college for his GED, wiser and more worldly.

And the president wants to stop all that … how? A federal corps of truant officers rounding up these book-averse juveniles and packing them off in paddy wagons to study Algebra II at the local high? Oh, that’ll make teaching a more attractive profession.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see oneself up against a roomful of 17-year-olds half of whom would very much prefer to be somewhere else. It just takes more than you will find in cognitive-elite types like Obama.