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Monroe School, Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site.

The Monroe School historic site of Brown v Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. | Source: Mark Reinstein / Getty

May 17 marks the 70th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. Decades after that ruling, Black children continue to be locked out of a quality education. Brown v. Board was supposed to eliminate segregation in our nation’s public schools, but the ruling had the unintentional consequence of white flight. Rather than send their children to school with Black youth, many white families fled cities for the suburbs. Today, voucher programs are yet another clever tool whose forces are intent on maintaining segregation to dismantle our public schools.

I share this observation as a dedicated school board member for over 20 years. I am committed to ensuring a quality education for every public school student in North Carolina. But too often over the past decade, our district has had to make hard choices about how to use fewer and fewer resources so that students don’t lose. Things have only gotten harder as our families and students struggle with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – more need for mental health counseling, school lunches, and educational support to help kids catch up after the loss of so much schooling.

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This is why I’ve grown increasingly concerned over the past year as state legislators speed up attempts to expand North Carolina’s education vouchers program. While voucher supporters claim that the program provides families with more choice and improves educational outcomes, these vouchers present many pitfalls that harm North Carolina’s public schools and the very foundation of public education.

First of all, education vouchers take much-needed funding away from public schools. By offering even wealthy parents the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools, these legislators are draining our communities’ public schools of the funding they desperately need. This diversion of funds starves our public schools so that it’s harder for them to provide quality education materials and technology, maintain school buildings, and retain skilled educators. Rather than investing in the improvement of public schools, vouchers siphon off their already limited resources.

Education vouchers can also be used to pay for private schools that are not held to the same standards of accountability and transparency as public schools. By law, public schools must have rigorous state oversight, standardized testing, and publicly accessible performance data. Unfortunately, private schools operate with little oversight from the state, leaving students vulnerable to low education standards. Private school educators are not required to be certified or receive regular professional development. Without proper quality control, we jeopardize our students’ academic growth.

Tennessee Educators Gather In Nashville To Protest Proposed School Voucher Legislation

Educators and various organizations from across Tennessee march in downtown Nashville in protest of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program on March 12, 2024. | Source: Seth Herald / Getty

Education vouchers also lead to more segregation and inequality among students. While some argue that vouchers provide options for disadvantaged students, the reality is that most private schools have admission requirements that limit access. Public schools must accept and educate every student in a community; private schools don’t. This results in the cherry-picking of students, leaving public schools with a more concentrated population of economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with special needs. But with reduced funding resulting from voucher programs and budget cuts, public schools have fewer resources to provide a quality education to all students as required by law.

Public schools are also legally required to provide comprehensive special education services to students with disabilities. While public schools must work to meet these requirements, private schools often lack the resources, expertise, and infrastructure necessary to accommodate students with diverse needs. Education vouchers leave students with disabilities underserved or left out completely.

Finally, but no less important, is that public schools are the cornerstone of democracy where students from different backgrounds learn and grow together, promoting mutual understanding and tolerance. Put simply, public schools are where we all first learn how to get along with others who don’t look like us or have the same background. By diverting public funds toward private institutions where most students are more likely to come from similar economic, racial, and religious backgrounds, education vouchers encourage segregation and weaken the democratic ideal of education as a common good.

It is not an accident that education voucher programs weaken our public school system. They are designed that way – to reduce enrollment in public schools, which further reduces public school funding and overall capacity. As a result, our community public schools struggle to maintain quality programs, attract and retain skilled teachers, and offer extracurricular activities.

North Carolina’s public education system should be a source of pride that encourages innovation, social mobility, and a sense of community. But our state has been underfunding its K-12 schools for years, and education vouchers are a direct threat to our system. The drain on public school funding, limited accountability, increased segregation, strained resources for special education, and erosion of democratic values should make us wonder what’s really going on here.

There is no other way to say it–vouchers are a threat to public education and the principles established in Brown v. Board of Education. Under the guise of providing choice, vouchers undermine public education, siphon off resources, perpetuate segregation, and widen disparities in educational opportunities. Shining a light on the harms of vouchers and the importance of equity and inclusivity in education is a surefire way to make real the promises of Brown v. Board. This is the only thing we should be fighting for on this and subsequent anniversaries of this landmark ruling. After all, all students deserve an honest, equitable, and fully funded public education.

Deena Hayes-Greene is chair of the Guilford County Board of Education in Greensboro, a community organizer, and a member of the HEAL Together North Carolina network.


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