Isaac Newton once told a fellow scientist: “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Likewise, the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly stands upon the shoulders of those who decades ago challenged the state’s conservative establishment. The new wave of liberal Democrats who have gone to Richmond in the past two election cycles bears little resemblance to the Democrats who last controlled the General Assembly in the 1990s. They are the ideological heirs of a different generation of Democrats — lonely liberals such as Francis Pickens Miller who in the ’40s and ’50s took on the Byrd Machine, and less-lonely liberals such as Henry Howell and George Rawlings in the ’60s and ’70s who finally helped bring it down.
And that is why those Democrats should do something that will seem at first completely unnatural — they should rally behind a package of measures introduced by one of the legislature’s most conservative Republicans.
History makes many strange turns and now we come to this one: State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County — perhaps best known for his opposition to expanding Medicaid and his defense of gun rights — is now trying to do what the great Democratic liberals Miller, Howell and Rawlings tried to do a half-century or more ago. Stanley has become the champion for ending the disparity between Virginia’s poorest schools and its most affluent ones.
That is not the typical profile for a rural Republican. However, the disparities that Stanley wants to address are most evident in two different types of schools — the ones in urban areas that are represented by Democrats but also the ones in rural areas represented by Republicans. Ultimately, the odd thing here isn’t that Stanley has chosen to champion this issue but why Democrats have failed to join him.
In his inaugural address, Gov. Ralph Northam bemoaned “crumbling schools” — of which there are many excruciating examples. The Democratic governor, though, has provided very little follow-through. Instead, it was Stanley who last year called for a statewide referendum to issue $3 billion in bonds for school construction. That proposal was met with bipartisan silence. The Republican opposition we can fathom — they are naturally inclined against government spending. Democrats, though, usually have no such qualms — except when it comes to fixing up schools that are sometimes so antiquated they have trouble handling modern technology. This is both mystifying — and a betrayal of their ideological heritage.
Earlier we invoked the name of Francis Pickens Miller. In 1949, he ran a courageous campaign for governor against the Byrd Machine’s hand-picked candidate. Miller’s signature issue: The state should help localities pay to modernize outdated school buildings. Miller didn’t win, but he came close enough that he spooked the conservative legislature into doing exactly what he had proposed: All through the 1950s there was a wave of new school construction that the state helped pay for — and hasn’t replicated since.
Stanley is back this year with the same proposal. He is essentially proposing the same thing that Miller proposed 71 years ago. Democrats who might feel some temporary discomfort about siding with a Republican should be able to soothe their conscience by the knowledge that they are really following in the footsteps of the great liberal crusader Miller — or, in keeping with our opening line, standing on his shoulders.
The real disparity in Virginia schools, though, isn’t between the gleaming educational palaces in Northern Virginia and the ones in rural and urban Virginia where ceilings leak and administrators worry about the power shorting out. It’s in course offerings. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that’s not the state’s problem, because the state constitution doesn’t require schools to be equal. Stanley has also proposed to amend the state constitution to guarantee “equal educational opportunities” to all students.
This is not a new idea. The original draft of the current state constitution called for equal schools but conservative Democrats took that language out and instead wrote that the state merely need to “seek” a quality education for all. In 1969, there was a great debate that saw the state’s most famous liberals of the day (there weren’t many) join with western Republicans to try to restore the equality guarantee. The choice for today’s Democrats is a historical one: Do they side with the ghost of Mills Godwin, the former segregationist and Byrd lieutenant who warned against guaranteeing equality, or do they carry on the work of liberal reformers Howell and Rawlings? You’d think, given how Democrats claim to be the party of education, that they’d be the one who would have proposed this amendment. The only political reason we can think of isn’t a very good one: Democrats today now represent the most affluent parts of the state. Have they simply lost touch with the problem?
So far, we’ve addressed this to Democrats because they’re the ones who now control the legislature. We’re trying to show them that a vote in favor of Stanley’s measures is actually in keeping with some of the great figures from the party’s past. However, we can also frame this in a way to make a similar argument to Republicans — at least those from rural areas. Among those who spoke in favor of guaranteeing an equal education in 1969 were many of those who helped build a Republican Party in Virginia — Caldwell Butler, Pete Giesen, Clyde Pearson and James Turk. They generally represented rural areas that suffered the same problems then that rural areas do now. “One of the things that has been wrong with our educational system in the State of Virginia has been the difference in the quality of education in different parts of the state,” Turk declared. Republicans can channel part of their own heritage here, too. Indeed, when a similar constitutional amendment was proposed in 1995, it drew support from some conservative legislators who are still around today — such as Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. That amendment also got killed — by Democrats. In proposing to a constitutional fix to school disparity, Stanley is simply being true to some of the Republicans who came before him. The new Democratic majority in Richmond is busy overturning lots of relics from the state’s past. Will they overturn the part of the constitution that enshrines school disparity? We know what the great liberals of the past would have done; we’ll see what today’s do.