A curious thing happened in Richmond this week.
On Monday, teachers rallied at the state Capitol to call for more school funding. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, held a news conference to endorse that: “Every child, regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of the block they live in, deserves a free high quality public education. We have promised them that in our constitution.”
Actually, she’s wrong and as both a lawyer and a longtime legislator she surely knows she’s wrong: Virginia’s constitution promises no such thing. Instead, Virginia’s constitution says that the General Assembly “shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” That phrase “shall seek to” is a loophole that constitutes an aspiration, not a mandate. This is not some arcane legal reading; it was the subject of a quite-famous Virginia State Supreme Court ruling in 1994.
The next day, McClellan — and other legislators — had an opportunity to close that loophole. But they didn’t. Instead, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee took all of 29 seconds to punt until next year a proposed constitutional amendment that would require Virginia to provide “equal educational opportunities” to all students. The vote was 10-0 — and McClellan was one of the 10.
We single out her only because she singled herself out the day before. In reality, there is plenty of blame to go around here and we intend to make sure that blame is fully distributed.
First, let’s recap why this is even an issue. In 1969, Virginia — emerging from the shameful era of segregation — set about writing a new constitution more fitting for the modern day. The first draft called for the state to guarantee equal schools. The conservative Democrats who ran the state took that out. Instead, they inserted the weaselly “shall seek to” language. That prompted a robust debate that saw an odd-couple coalition of liberal Democrats and western Republicans who tried to restore the equality guarantee. They were outnumbered, and Virginia proceeded to enshrine school disparity in its constitution behind the high-sounding but deceptive language of “shall seek to.”
No one should be surprised how that worked out: Students in affluent localities have better schools than those in central cities and rural areas. The teachers may not be better — we’d argue that they’re not — but the buildings are certainly better and the course offerings are certainly more diverse. In the early 1990s, a group of mostly rural school systems — including Radford and Pulaski County — sued. And lost. The state Supreme Court pointed to the aspirational, not mandatory, nature of the so-called “guarantee” in the state constitution. In 1995, a group of mostly western legislators introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to change that. The House Democratic leaders at the time killed it. This year, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, introduced another proposed constitutional amendment. And, as we’ve seen, the legislature has put it off.
In practical terms, carrying the measure over has no real effect. Under Virginia’s rules for amending the constitution, the amendment would have to pass either this year or next year — and then again in the legislature that convenes in 2022 after next year’s elections. Even if the General Assembly had passed this amendment this year, nothing would happen unless and until it passed again in 2022. So a year’s delay doesn’t change things; 2020 is as good as 2021 for the first vote. Symbolically, though, this delay sends a signal and it’s not a pretty one. We don’t know what legislators intended when they carried this over — there was no debate, just a vote — but the message received here is that they simply don’t care about this issue. It’s easier to stand in front of a rally of teachers and proclaim a commitment to equal education than to actually vote for something that would guarantee that. The new Democratic majority in Richmond is busy passing lots of other things to signify that there’s a new day in Virginia — somehow, though, guaranteeing equal education isn’t part of their agenda. What gives? Why aren’t Democrats rushing to co-sponsor this amendment instead of shuffling it off to next year — where we fully expect them to kill it outright?
We said there was plenty of blame to go around, so let’s get started. Democrats ran the General Assembly all through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. They could have fixed this at any time. They didn’t. On the contrary, their leadership killed the only attempt. Republicans ran the legislature through most of the 2000s. They could have fixed it, too. They didn’t. Now Democrats are back in charge and we don’t see them interested, either. Why not? They certainly talk a good game; they just don’t follow through. Gov. Ralph Northam bemoaned “crumbling schools” in his inaugural address. Why wasn’t he getting behind this amendment? Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring and possibly even McClellan all want to run for governor. Where were they? Democrats have shriveled up in rural Virginia; this might be a way to get some of them back. Likewise, for any Republican who wants to run statewide — why didn’t they endorse this? Democrats like to paint Republicans as anti-education; backing this would sure put the lie to that. In any case, Democrats are back in charge so they’re the ones responsible now. Here’s what it looks like to us: Democrats are now anchored in the wealthiest part of the state. They’ve got theirs. Why bother with the rest of us? They know rural Virginia won’t vote for them, and they know voters in central cities will no matter what. Their commitment to equal education is only conditional.
You know who else is to blame, though? We all are. Where is the public clamor for equal schools? We also don’t see the business community demanding them. Chambers of Commerce rush to endorse road-building, but they don’t decry school disparities. We didn’t see those teachers chanting for this amendment, either. Why not? We’ve also seen what happens when ordinary people in rural areas get upset about something — they show up by the thousands to object to proposed gun laws. But they haven’t held similar rallies to object to school disparities that already exist — and which hurt their part of the state more than any other. Neither party feels any pressure for their constituents, their party activists or their donors. That’s why until more people stand up to demand a change, Virginia’s schools will remain separate and unequal.