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Centuries of Separate but Unequal Education

Updated: May 9, 2022

In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the Leandro v. State case that the state educational apparatus systematically violated the constitutional rights of North Carolina children by failing to ensure the universal opportunity to a sound basic education. Despite this ruling, for over twenty years the state has not provided a basic education for all its children, especially children of lower social economic status and minority children, specifically African Americans.

In reviewing a report written by Ethan Roy and James E. Ford for the Center for Racial Equality in Education entitled “Deep Rooted” A Brief History of Race and Education in North Carolina, it is clear that education in North Carolina has been controversial and racially polarizing and continues to be to this day. The state is very proud of its educational system, and there is a belief that the state is a special place in the nation where education is championed, especially the UNC system.

However, history tells us that as one of the original 13 colonies in 1663, North Carolina, like other southern states, built its economy on the backs of uneducated slaves. African-Americans were denied any opportunity for the most basic education. During this time slavery was the primary labor system supporting the economic power engine that created stability across the state and great wealth today for many families. A major concern of NC slave owners during this time and for many years later was to not expose slaves to literacy.

The slave owners believed that not exposing slaves to literacy reduced the potential for uprisings and independent thinking. Despite these restrictions on learning, many slaves and free blacks sought stealth methods to educate each other, especially those slaves who gained their freedom. This was the situation for over 100 years and was highlighted by legislation passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1830 that said, “Any free person, who shall hereafter teach any slave within this state to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any book or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State.”

Poor whites were also lacking in education. However, i

n 1825, the North Carolina legislature created a state literacy fund and later offered matching grants to support primary schools. North Carolina became the first state to offer publicly funded universal white education. Blacks were left out of this legislation. Many blacks gained their education as soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation. For many years there was violence and intimidation to keep blacks in their place with regards to education. In 1868, North Carolina officially adopted black education and created a universal public-school system for blacks that was challenged by whites who feared integrated schools. In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision created a legal precedent of separate but equal education. But it was not equal. As an example, the per pupil funding in 1920 was $3,442 for white schools and $500 for black schools.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that public schools separated by race where inherently unequal and violated black children’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. Despite this ruling, whites continued to seek separate schools for their children.

In 1964, President Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act. This law enabled the US Attorney General to bring forward lawsuits on behalf of black plaintiffs in local school districts practicing segregation. This legislation and the resistance to integration resulted in black community schools being closed and thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs. As more time passed, busing was implemented. The 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg ruling gave school districts the authority to mandate busing of students which resulted in most black students being bused to white schools with white teachers. A result of busing was white flight to the suburbs in the 1970’s and 1980’s so that urban schools became increasingly occupied by black students.

As we fast forward to today, we have a similar circumstance where families are moving to NC Charter schools, private schools (through vouchers) and home schools appear to be a new mechanism for white flight and re-segregating NC schools. It’s important to note that non-growth in traditional public school enrollment due to families leaving for other options critically undermines public schools’ ability to have basic funding to provide a sound basic education to all children. Enrollment shifts to other options means a lack of clarity about whether the children who leave traditional public schools are receiving a sound basic education-as the schools are not held accountable to the same standards that traditional public schools are.

The Leandro decision addresses the issue of public schools not receiving the basic education they deserve in North Carolina.

Challenges and ongoing litigation have kept the Leandro ruling from being implemented. In 2019, WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development and service agency that works with education communities to promote excellence and achieve equity, published a court-ordered plan that provides recommendations for actions to advance the state’s efforts to achieve compliance with the Leandro decision.

The report was made public in December. According to the report prepared by WestEd, “the future prosperity and well-being of the state’s citizens requires successfully educating all of its children. North Carolina’s current education system fails to meet the education needs of many of its children and thereby fails to provide for the future success of these individuals, their communities, and the state.”

We would hope that despite the history of racial segregation, separate but unequal education, white flight, the advent of charter schools, that this report will change 300 hundred years of unequal education.

The future of North Carolina in a world that is becoming smaller everyday depends on implementing the findings for the betterment of students, parents and everyone involved in educating the children of North Carolina.

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