The Corner

Education

Beware the ‘Evil Origin Story’

As most NR readers probably know by now, teachers’ union boss Randi Weingarten recently told an Evil Origin Story about the school-choice movement. “Decades ago, the term choice was used to cloak overt racism by segregationist politicians,” she said. “The ‘real pioneers’ of private school choice were the white politicians who resisted school integration.” And just in case her association of segregationists with modern-day school-choice advocates was not already clear enough: “Privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation. We are in the same fight, against the same forces.”

Rich Lowry, Rick Hess, and others have already responded with more accurate histories of school choice in the United States. My purpose here is not to review that history, but to lament the use of Evil Origin Stories in general. The format is familiar: “Viewpoint X may seem perfectly mainstream, but X is actually rooted in something sinister, and modern advocates of X are tainted in some way by that history.” This is guilt by association, linking opponents with motivations or viewpoints they have never expressed.

Evil Origin Stories are all too common. In fact, voucher supporters tell one of their own. When writing about so-called Blaine amendments — 19th-century provisions in state constitutions that prohibit public money for private schools — choice advocates often assert that they are rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry, as if the shame of such a thing redounds to public-school defenders today.

These histories are not necessarily wrong or uninteresting. Studying how political associations and ideologies have evolved over time can be edifying. But when told in the form of an Evil Origin Story, with the intent of discrediting one’s modern-day opponents, such narratives poison the well. In the education context, most voucher supporters are not trying to re-segregate schools, and most public-school defenders are not worried about Catholic separatism. That should be the starting point for a healthy debate.

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.

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