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Phil Magness Responds to Nancy MacLean

With this letter in tomorrow’s (Nov. 22nd’s) print edition of the Wall Street Journal, Phil Magness – responding to the error-infected ‘arguments’ peddled by Nancy MacLean – sets the historical record straight about Milton Friedman and school choice:

In her Nov. 19 letter, Nancy MacLean accuses me of ignoring the substance of her research findings, which purport to implicate Milton Friedman in a collusive partnership with segregationists to advance the cause of school vouchers. It’s a brazen charge, considering that Prof. MacLean ignores clear evidence that Friedman not only supported racial integration, but saw vouchers as an essential tool to achieve that end.

Rather than engage the economist at his word, Ms. MacLean imputes opportunistic motives to the date of Friedman’s 1955 article on the economic theory of school choice—one year after Brown v. Board of Education. Yet Friedman’s papers at the Hoover Institution confirm that he drafted his paper before the Brown ruling. The timing came about from an ordinary lag in academic publishing, not the conspiratorial designs that Ms. MacLean imagines.

Curiously, Ms. MacLean’s argument becomes inattentive to dates when it suits her case. Her argument repeatedly conflates Virginia’s 1959 tuition grant program with the arch-segregationist “Massive Resistance” laws of 1956-57 that it displaced. This allows her to obfuscate the evidence I present in my op-ed (“School Choice’s Antiracist History,” Oct. 19), which illustrates how the Virginia Education Association (VEA) allied with segregationists to attack school vouchers after the courts struck down the Massive Resistance statutes in January 1959. Like Friedman, the Virginia teachers union recognized that vouchers would expedite the integration of schools. While Friedman considered this a desirable outcome, the antivoucher activists warned it would lead to the “negro engulfment” of the public schools.

Confronted with this evidence, Ms. MacLean elsewhere makes excuses for the VEA: “To save the schools for future generations, some advocates appealed to that racism in their arguments.” She evidently believes these actions were necessary to “stem the revenue drain” from public schools under a voucher system, “not to protect segregation per se.” This attempt to rationalize the teachers union’s collusion with segregationists is deeply ironic, given that it is the same charge she falsely makes against Friedman. Apparently, segregationist political collusion is acceptable to Ms. MacLean, provided that it services her own anti-voucher beliefs.

Phillip W. Magness
American Institute for Economic Research
Great Barrington, Mass.

DBx: Historical scholarship is performed with about as much precision and effectiveness by Nancy MacLean as brain surgery would be performed by a drunk wrestler firing a bazooka.