Friday marked 70 years since the US Supreme Court declared that government-enforced separate public schools for students of different races was unconstitutional in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Yet our public school enrollment boundaries today are often a near-mirror of the redlined housing maps going back to the 1930s and 1940s — highly segregated socioeconomic lines drawn to deny enrollment to best-fit public schools, all because of where a family lives.  

This means that despite Brown v. Board, there is still a persistent, prevalent, and legal type of discrimination that millions of families face when trying to access public schools—discrimination based on their residential address.  

But states — including North Carolina — can enact changes so that a home address no longer determines a child’s educational journey, empowering families to decide which school best meets their child’s needs. In February, a nonpartisan group of more than 40 education organizations from across the country launched the No More Lines Coalition, dedicated to eliminating discriminatory public school boundary lines in all 50 states by 2030. And a report I authored, released last week, outlines three policy approaches states can use to make this a reality. 

North Carolina currently doesn’t have any of those three policies on the books, although there is promising legislation being considered. House Bill 793, sponsored by Rep. Allen Chesser,R-Nash; and Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg, would empower families to apply to any public school within their local school district that’s the best fit for their child.

If passed, this new open-enrollment program would be a strong step in the right direction. After all, the people of North Carolina are calling for equal access to public schools. A recent poll from the yes. every kid. foundation. found that nearly two-thirds of Tar Heel voters support a law that would empower families to access any public school in the state regardless of where they live. 

Of course, to truly move the needle on this issue — to ensure that no child in North Carolina is denied opportunities because of their home address — policymakers should enact all of these three policies. 

The first is to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on residential address. Most school district boundaries and enrollment policies are set up today so that families experience de-facto discrimination based on where they live: the school their child attends is determined solely by their address. As one example, this means that even if a child is exposed to bullying or other unsafe environments at school, their fate is often determined by where their family can afford to live. This can have a lasting impact. Studies continually show that a high-quality education is associated with a multitude of critical life outcomes, including better health, stronger interpersonal relationships, and increased financial earnings. 

Second, North Carolina should decriminalize address sharing. North Carolina is one of 24 states in which parents can be prosecuted for using a shared address to enroll their children in the public school that works best for them yet is outside of their assigned attendance zone. And states actually throw parents in jail for this. Ohio sent Kelley Williams-Bolar, a single mother seeking a better education for her two daughters, to jail in 2011. She had used her father’s address to enroll her daughters in a safer, better-fit school. States should be doing everything they can to empower — not punish — parents and protect the choices that they make for their kids. 

The third policy is mandatory open enrollment. Open enrollment policies empower students to cross school district lines to attend a school outside of their attendance zone that best meets their needs. House Bill 793 would create an open enrollment program in the same spirit as Arizona, which has mandatory open enrollment for its public schools. This means Arizonian families can send their child to any public school that meets their needs, regardless of where they live or where the school is located, so long as that school has the capacity. Families are utilizing these opportunities: In the 2021-22 school year, 10% of Arizona public school students (over 115,000 students) attended a school other than their assigned one. Open enrollment policies like these help decouple the unfair bond between a family’s income and their child’s learning opportunities.  

Advocates for family empowerment and decision-making in education have a duty to cast a bold vision for the future — made even more urgent in light of the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision. A home address, and a family’s income, should no longer dictate a child’s educational journey. While a few states and localities have shown a way forward, we have far to go until residential address no longer determines a child’s educational opportunities. But our children shouldn’t have to wait another 70 years — we must eliminate exclusionary lines now and empower every child with access to the education that is best for them.