Professionally, she’s director of NC State’s Center for Urban Affairs and Community Services.
Outside of the office, she’s been working to improve public education in Wake County for 40 years. Today, she is one of the leaders of Public Schools First NC, a statewide organization that advocates for high-quality public schools, and she is determined to prevent the erosion of the progress North Carolina has achieved over those four decades.
Committed to Integration and Quality
A military kid whose family moved regularly, Brannon landed in North Carolina during her high school years and moved to Raleigh for graduate school in 1973 – just as area leaders were debating whether to merge the mostly white Wake County school system with the largely minority Raleigh City Schools.
Brannon attended debates on the matter as part of her Sociology studies and quickly became engaged by the issues of segregation and educational equity. “From the very get-go I’ve been absolutely committed to an integrated public school system and one in which every child – regardless of where they live, their income, their gender, their race – has as equal opportunity for a solid, quality education.”
Her devotion to these ideals stems from her own experience as the first person in her family to go to college. “I was the kid of a beautician and an enlisted man in the military, and I got to earn a Ph.D.,” she says. “I really felt the impact of knowing that many of my relatives, many of my cousins, did not come anywhere close to the American dream in terms of income or education. So when I was exposed in the 70s and 80s to the things going on in Raleigh, it just ignited a burning passion in me to fight for our schools and fight for our teachers – knowing that the only difference between success and failure for me was a few teachers who encouraged me and inspired me.”
Brannon became very involved as a parent when her children moved through Wake County Public Schools. “I served as PTA president about 16 different times, between kids and different schools,” she laughs. But she soon recognized that the biggest problem schools face is a lack of funding. “I realized that the money lies with the county commissioners – for school bonds, for construction, for supplements, for those extra things that make our school system great. That [realization] got me involved in the political side of the issues.”
She ran for and won a seat as a county commissioner in 1996, and although she lost a tight race in 2000, her commitment to the school system didn’t diminish.
She was already engaged and ready to take action when in 2009, a new conservative majority in the Wake County School Board started undoing the system’s diversity policies. “In a few months, we saw the school system flip from one using a balanced and integrated approach to serving all children to one that was moving toward being segregated by income and race.”
Brannon and other education advocates started a coalition, Great Schools in Wake, to push back against re-segregation efforts. In partnership with social justice organizations like the North Carolina NAACP, they made sure the negative changes happening in Wake County regularly made the front-page news. Those efforts helped to create the environment for the 2011 election, in which the school board’s chairman was defeated and control of the board returned to Democrats.
Great Schools in Wake continues to inform parents and community members about what’s happening in education and advocate for better funding and teacher support.
But for Brannon, the experience of working with that coalition opened her eyes to greater problems around the state.
Building a Statewide Network for Education
“I made so many friends and contacts all across the state and started doing research and looking into other school systems,” Brannon says. “And guess what – re-segregation of our school system was happening all over the state and had already happened in Charlotte and Greenville and Winston-Salem and Greensboro, with negative consequence…. It was appalling to me.”
Once again, Brannon took action. “It was painfully obvious to me that we needed a statewide communication network of people and programs working exclusively for public education.”
She and her fellow advocates launched Public Schools First NC in order to connect parents, teachers, and others concerned about public education. The organization was one of the leading voices in support of public schools during the recent legislative session.
“We’re out there working our tails off, and we’re making inroads. We’re getting a lot of partners across the state.”
Now that state legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory have implemented a budget that leaves the state’s schools seriously underfunded, Brannon says Public School First NC will work to document the impact.
“It’s really critical to keep the public educated and informed,” she explains. “Over the next year we’re going to be documenting and reporting out the real impacts, the straight facts of what’s going on in school systems across the state.
“Secondly, we’re getting ready for the short session,” she added. “We’re going to continue to fight for better funding, to restore teacher tenure, and to restore [pay increases] for master’s degrees. And we’re going to fight to not let this school voucher plan expand.”
The Biggest Threat: Vouchers
Brannon worries about the creation of a school voucher program. The new Opportunity Scholarships supposedly will target low-income students only, but experiences with similar programs in other states show that these vouchers quickly turn into nothing more than subsidies for well-off families.
“I’m very worried this is a corner we’ve turned that we can’t turn back,” Brannon says. “[In other states with these kinds of programs], the funding for it continues to grow, and it becomes more and more expensive. It absolutely devastates the public education system in every community, in every state it’s been implemented in.
“This is, for the public school system as a whole, probably the worst thing that could have happened,” Brannon continues. “Taking public dollars and putting them in private schools – that is the thread that we will keep pulling until we have unraveled the public school system. The public has got to understand this.”
Brannon explains that voucher programs aren’t about school choice. Rather, they are the result of a “perfect storm” of those who are anti-government, those who want to make money off of public education, those who want religion in schools, and those who “don’t want their kids going to school with children who are not like them” – all supported by parents who don’t recognize the impact vouchers have on their communities and on the state as a whole.
“For forty years, we’ve seen this push by the ultra-conservative religious right to erase that line [between religion and public education]. For forty years, we’ve seen profiteers try to get their noses under the tent. And for forty years, we’ve seen people who want to re-segregate schools. Since 1973, I’ve been fighting to strengthen and integrate public schools. And now, in 2013, here we are. I’m absolutely devastated.
“But I also feel energized. I am determined that I will spend the last days of my life fighting for what I fought for 40 years ago, which is a strong public school system that serves every child. And I’m more determined now than ever.”