Educational Equity and the Fight to End Systemic Racism

By Mike Long

My heart is broken by the senseless loss of life over the past few weeks and months in the tragic deaths of African-American men and women like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others.

One loss of life is too many.

I am a 59-year-old white man who has not experienced racism and inequality as some of my friends and peers have. While I cannot fully understand how they feel, I can listen, I can learn, and I can work with my community to make change.

I, along with the family at Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), mourn with our brothers and sisters in North Carolina and across America. As clear as I can say it—we stand united to end systemic racism and injustice in our country.

Real conversations are happening today across our country related to sensible reforms that will better prioritize the needs of individuals rather than the welfare of systems. All major systems that impact our daily lives as Americans should be reviewed and improved. Education should be on that list.

Our organization, PEFNC, is fighting against a mindset that puts an educational infrastructure above the needs of individual students and families.

Entire communities are excluded from accessing educational opportunity—and ultimately the American dream—simply because of their neighborhood and zip code. Their location keeps them stuck in a system that might not be meeting their needs. Even as our nation grapples with other ways to end injustice, it is clear to our organization that a piece of that puzzle is expanding educational access and equity.

Simply put, families, parents, and students should have equal access to the schools of their choice.

I have spent the last 35 years of my life listening to families about educational options. I began as a teacher in the Durham Public School System and ended as an administrator at a private school before joining PEFNC in 2018. I have spoken with and listened to countless African-American families who share with us that without school choice, the barriers for their children would be insurmountable.

One of those parents is Ms. Charlonda Brown. She has two sons on the Opportunity Scholarship Program in North Carolina, which provides up to $4,200 a year to help working-class families send their child to the private school of their choice. “My son was suffocating in the [traditional public school] setting. His needs weren’t being met. And nobody would listen,” Charlonda says. She knows that without the opportunity to exercise school choice and attend private school, her sons would not be thriving today.

Parents are standing up to fight for their children, and our organization takes pride in being with families every step of the way. We rallied with families to get the Opportunity Scholarship Program started in 2013. When opponents tried and shut it down, we rallied again. And when our current Governor Roy Cooper filed a lawsuit against the Opportunity Scholarship Program we rallied again. And we won every step of the way to make sure families have equal access to the schools of their choice.

Contrary to rhetoric from purveyors of the educational status quo in North Carolina, our schools of choice are racially diverse. For the current school year, 24 percent of the population of traditional public schools is African-American, compared to 28 percent of students receiving Opportunity Scholarships to attend a private school and 26 percent of students at public charter schools.

I have hope for a better future where every child has access to the best education possible. In North Carolina, we have made significant strides in recent years to meet this challenge. We have created the Opportunity Scholarship Program that empowers low-income families to attend their school of choice, plus the Children with Disabilities Grant and Education Savings Account that help families of students with special needs do the same. We also lifted the cap on charter schools.

Right now, over 350,000 North Carolina students are benefiting from school choice at public charters, private schools, and home schools.

Here is what I know and believe: education equity is essential to creating a just and fair society. Why should income level and zip code determine the length and quality of life for our neighbors in North Carolina? Why should it determine whether our kids succeed or fail educationally?

It should not. We have made great progress, but we have a long way to go. That is why PEFNC will continue to work for solutions through school choice and education reform.  Let’s accomplish this together!