PolitiFact VA: Earle-Sears offers flawed view of Brown v. Board
Lieutenant governor says landmark case was about school choice, not segregation.
Speaker: Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears
Statement: Brown v. Board of Education “was never about sending Black children to white schools. It was about parents being able to decide where to send their children to school.”
Date: Feb. 2, 2023
Setting: Radio interview
In her efforts to win state tuition funds for private and charter schools, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears has offered a faulty analysis of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision — which banned government-enforced segregation of public schools.
“It was never about sending Black children to white schools,” Sears, a Republican, said during a Feb. 2 radio interview on WRVA. “It was about parents being able to decide where to send their children to school after all.”
For decades, school voucher advocates have argued that Brown v. Board has failed to produce equal education opportunities for children. Academic research has shown that school segregation ramped up after the court-ordered demise of busing in 1991 and that many Black children are once again locked in poorly performing schools.
Conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R–N.C.) — who is minority leader of the House Committee on Education and Labor — have said Brown’s legacy should be the establishment of voucher systems that would enhance parental choice on where their children go to school. “School choice is the civil rights issue of our era,” Cruz said in 2014 on the decision’s 60th anniversary.
Earle-Sears’ statement goes a step further by saying that the Brown decision was about parental rights in choosing schools and not desegregation. She made similar claims during a September 2022 interview on Fox News.
Her statements conflict with key phrasing in the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling: “We come then to the question presented: does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.”
Although the Brown ruling struck down the “separate but equal” racial doctrine on schools the Supreme Court established in 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson, it did not offer a road map for desegregating schools. That was left for the future.
Earle-Sears backs her statements by saying that the parents who supported the original lawsuits folded into Brown v. Board were seeking options for their children’s education.
“Brown v. Board was about parents who wanted to send their children to the school of their choice,” Earle-Sears said in an emailed statement.. “During segregation, Black students were denied access to white public schools, which often had superior resources than the Black schools. Black families had no choice but to send their kids to inferior schools.
“Today, many of the public schools in low-income areas are unaccredited or low-performing,” she added. “Just as parents did not have options during legalized segregation, many do not have affordable options now, with low-income and children of color too often relegated to failing public schools.”
We spoke to two experts on Brown v. Board. Both said Earle-Sears’ interpretation of the case is off-base.
“Brown v. Board of Education was not about parental choice,” said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia constitutional law professor. “In 1954, the court in Brown ruled that segregation of children in public schools by race violated the 14th Amendment.”
Lisa Stulberg, a professor of sociology of education at New York University, said: “I do not believe that [Sears’ statement] is an accurate reading of the Brown decision. Brown … was about opening up public institutions to serve all students, regardless of race. It was about ensuring that the state — through its public schools — provided equal protection under the law.”
Howard and Stulberg said it’s ironic that school choice advocates now link their cause to civil rights and Brown v. Board. In the decade following the decision, they note that “freedom of choice” was one of the tactics used by Southern states, including Virginia, to thwart school desegregation. Because Brown only applied to public schools, some states set up a voucher system to help parents send their children to segregated private academies. The Supreme Court struck down that strategy in 1968 in a case that arose from New Kent County, Virginia.
We should note that the school-choice bill Earle-Sears supported this year died in the House of Delegates Committee on Education. The bill — sponsored by Del. Glenn Davis (R–Virginia Beach) — would have allowed parents to set up accounts to receive public funds that could be spent on tuition, textbooks or other educational fees at private or secondary schools.
The accounts would have differed from traditional voucher systems because the funds would have been deposited in parents' bank accounts instead of being directly sent to private schools. Deposits would have been based on a percentage of the per-pupil state aid the student’s public school district receives.
Earle-Sears said that Brown v. Board of Education “was never about sending Black children to white schools. It was about parents being able to decide where to send their children to school.”
Her statement conflicts with the very words of the Supreme Court in ruling that mandated segregation of public schools violates the 14th Amendment granting all citizens equal protection of laws.
As SCOTUS wrote in its unanimous decision, “We come then to the question presented: does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.”
We rate Earle-Sears’ statement False.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Rep. Virginia Foxx's role on the House Education and Labor Committee. She is the committee's chairperson. Also, emailed quotes from Earle-Sears were misattributed to Julianne Condrey, the lieutenant governor's chief of staff. Our ruling remains unchanged.
Winsome Sears, WRVA interview, Feb. 2, 2023 (9:45 mark)
Sears, Fox News interview, Sept. 4, 2022 (1:40 mark)
WUSA, “Virginia's lieutenant governor fights for new 'school choice' bill,” Jan. 10, 2023
Legislative Information System, HB 1508, 2023 session
JUSTIA, “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” March 17, 1954
Email from Julianne Condrey, chief of staff, Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Feb. 17, 2023
UCLA Civil Rights Project, "Black Segregation Matters," December 2020
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, news release, May 16, 2014
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, statement to the House Committee on Education and Labor. April 30, 2019
Email from A.E. Dick Howard, law professor, University of Virginia, Feb. 15, 2023
Email from Lisa Stulberg, professor of sociology of education at New York University, Feb. 15, 2023
Stulberg, “School Choice Discourse and the Legacy of Brown,” Sept. 25, 2008
The Washington Post, “‘School choice’ developed as a way to protect segregation and abolish public schools,” Sept. 27, 2021
VPM, “Education savings accounts: Unpacking a new Republican-led bill,” Jan. 11, 2023
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “House panel advances Youngkin-backed school choice bill,” Jan. 26, 2023