During National School Choice Week, the case for anti-racism in North Carolina’s educational system

During National School Choice Week, the case for anti-racism in North Carolina’s educational system

Unless we acknowledge and address the racist history of school choice, we will perpetuate it.

It’s National School Choice Week. Following a year of reinvigorated examination of the history and current role of racial oppression in American institutions, like policing and elections, this week provides all parents, educators, administrators and advocates a worthwhile opportunity to likewise reflect upon the historical role of race and racism in the school choice movement. 

When operating within a system whose early foundations were built upon maintaining segregation and white supremacy, it will require a commitment to active anti-racism, not just passive “market principles,” to correct course and better bend North Carolina education law, policy, and practice toward racial equity.

As with other institutions and movements, taking stock of school choice is and where it’s going requires an honest look at where it has been. And like many Southern states, North Carolina’s school choice movement traces its origins directly to the white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education. 

In 1956, North Carolina’s Pearsall Plan established the state’s initial response to Brown, seeking to comply with the narrowest possible interpretation of the case’s text while maintaining de facto school segregation.

Specifically, the Pearsall Plan advocated for three primary responses to Brown’s mandate: 

  • Decentralizing student assignment to school district officers. These officers were instructed to consider the student’s previous (segregated) school and “all local conditions” when making assignments.
  • Providing a “safety valve” for concerned parents to transfer their children out of desegregated schools; 
  • Providing publicly funded “grants to be paid toward the [private] education of any child assigned against the wishes of his parents to a school in which the races are mixed ….” 

Through these methods, North Carolina attempted to shift the apparent locus of control from the state to the local and parent level. This allowed the state to clean its hands of legal accountability, while allowing school segregation to continue uninterrupted. 

Put differently, in seeking to maintain arguably the most impactful and visible pillar of white supremacy, North Carolina turned to school choice.

While the Pearsall Plan and similar schemes were quickly ruled unconstitutional in federal court, their general theory stuck: Because the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause (upon which Brown was decided) bars discriminatory actions taken only by the state, shifting student assignment choices to private institutions or individual citizens allowed for private discrimination that nevertheless had inherently public impacts. 

As the decades passed and open racism became less socially acceptable, the broader narrative of school choice shifted from one that was explicitly supportive of racial separation to one that embraced facially race-neutral “market-based” principles: competition, innovation and consumer (parent) empowerment. Nevertheless these principles allow for the perpetuation of racial inequities in education. 

These principles certainly enjoy some basic theoretical merit apart from this historical connection to segregation, but in practice, they cannot be untangled from their racialized origins without an explicit focus on racial equity – without, to use a newly popularized term, anti-racism.

This history informs, but does not define, the present reality of North Carolina school choice. Indeed, some school choice policies have expanded and improved opportunities for some Black, Latinx, Native and economically disadvantaged North Carolina students. 

For instance, North Carolina charter schools statewide now serve roughly the same proportion of Black students as traditional public schools. (However, they still lack proportional Latinx enrollment and often still contribute to racial isolation within districts.) In addition, the 2018 NC ACCESS Program provided grants for charter schools to increase access for “educationally disadvantaged students.” Likewise, magnet schools were largely created to diversify educational opportunities in mostly urban areas, seeking to maintain school integration in the face of white flight to the suburbs. 

But purely market-based attempts to expand and deregulate school choice that ignore the movement’s troubled historical foundation serve only to maintain racial disparities in North Carolina education. So long as charter schools aren’t required to provide full transportation or opt into the National Student Lunch Program, so long as private school vouchers require little or no academic transparency, and so long as school choice advocates demand more public funding with less public accountability, school choice will continue to systematically benefit the most financially, socially, informationally, and politically affluent among us: white upper- and middle-class suburban parents.

To be clear, this is not to say that individual parents, administrators or advocates consciously harbor racial animus or seek school segregation. (But facially race-neutral goals like seeking a school with the “right culture” or in a “good neighborhood” often belie unconscious or unacknowledged racial bias). Most of these groups have honest beliefs and legitimate policy rationales for advocating for increased educational options.

Parents, in particular, are far more often than not, simply looking to do right by their child. Nevertheless, “neutral” or unexamined individual participation in a system with racially inequitable momentum allows that momentum to continue unimpeded, and cannot be wholly logistically or morally separated from the system itself.

Ultimately, orienting school choice toward racial equity requires a more expansive understanding of education – not as a private, market-based good, but as an inherently public good. Ensuring excellent educational opportunities for racially and economically marginalized children benefits not just those children and their families, but also our communities and state as a whole. 

School integration brings educational and experiential benefits for white students and students of color alike. Integration is vital to the broader weaving of a cohesive, pluralistic, democratic fabric. And North Carolina’s constitutional promise of a “sound basic education” does not create a finite pie to be sliced in accordance with the reliably inequitable demands of a private marketplace. Rather, it is a right equally enshrined in all students for the sake of not only their individual self-actualization, but the collective social, economic and political benefits to our state.

School choice can and should play a supportive, supplemental role behind a robust, innovative, and full-funded traditional public school system in making real the awesome potential of creating excellent educational opportunities for all North Carolina children. But in order to do so, parents, teachers, administrators and advocates within the school choice movement must understand its racist historical roots. They must accordingly orient school choice policies and practices not toward passive market principles, but active anti-racism. School Choice Week 2021 provides as fitting an opportunity as any to start or recommit to that reorientation.

Zack Kaplan is third-year student at Duke Law School, where he studies the intersection of education, law, and racial equity. He is a former 5th grade teacher and current Board Member at Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham.