The General Assembly had made it clear that it has no enthusiasm for changing the disparity between rich schools and poor ones. Nor is it interested in helping communities build new schools to replace facilities that even the governor admits are “crumbling.” In that respect, we are reminded of the lines from the class song by The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” When Republicans ran the General Assembly, they showed no interest in fixing these problems. Now that Democrats are in charge, they are finding that benign neglect is a good policy for them, as well.
Clearly, simply having a legislator — in this case, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County — introduce measures for a constitutional amendment requiring equal educational opportunities and a $3 billion bond referendum isn’t enough. In theory, school disparity is an issue that ought to unite two parts of the state that otherwise don’t have much in common — rural areas represented by Republicans and central cities represented by Democrats. Norton really has the same problems that Norfolk does. That grand coalition hasn’t come together, though. Politically, here’s the problem: There’s no real constituency for ending school disparity. Neither party activists nor political donors are putting any pressure on politicians in either party. Their constituents aren’t, either. So what would it take to change the political landscape? Let’s look at some of the people who could do something.
1. The business community. Few things happen in Virginia politics without the support of the business community. The lack of business interest in school disparity is mystifying. Business leaders routinely express their concern that Virginia’s workforce isn’t ready for the job demands of the 21st century. Here’s one place that “skills gap” begins: Loudon County has computer science classes in kindergarten; some rural schools struggle with electrical circuits that short out. In Franklin County, business leaders have complained about a shortage of workers in certain fields – at the same time that the county’s career and technical education center has had to turn away students because it’s not big enough. So why aren’t business leaders putting together committees to demand action the way they have for other things? Last year, we saw chambers of commerce get behind proposals to create a new funding stream for Interstate 81 because businesses see a clear connection between a good road and their economic success. There’s a clear connection between good schools and their economic success, too, but the business community has been strangely silent. Who will step up?
2. Teachers. They constitute an important constituency within the state’s majority party. This year they rallied in Richmond to call for more state funding, some of that in the form of pay raises. Why aren’t they rallying to end school disparity? One cynical view is that they’re afraid any money that goes into better buildings is money that could be spent for pay raises. Prove us wrong.
3. Social justice groups. We’ve mostly focused on rural schools because that’s the part of the state we’re in. However, some of the single most egregious examples of “crumbling schools” — to use Gov. Ralph Northam’s phrase in his inaugural address — are in cities with large minority populations, such as Richmond and Norfolk. Why isn’t the NAACP — and lots of other social justice organizations — pushing for Stanley’s proposals?
4. Statewide candidates. Now it’s time to start naming names. Here’s how we see the basic political problem. Republicans don’t care about school disparity because fixing it would involve spending a lot of money. Democrats don’t care because they now represent the most affluent parts of the state – this isn’t their problem in Northern Virginia. Republicans are fine letting down rural Virginia on school disparity because they know they’ll get those votes anyway on other issues. Democrats are fine letting down central cities for the same reason. It’s hard to argue against those electoral realities. However, within each party, might there be individual politicians who —for their own interests — would be willing to challenge those paradigms?
Democrats are about to have a multi-candidate contest for next year’s nomination for governor — certainly Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax vs. Attorney General Mark Herring and perhaps others. Herring’s got a record he can run on. No lieutenant governor really has a record, though, beyond breaking some tie votes. Unfortunately, Fairfax is best known for being accused of sexual assaults, which he strongly denies. He needs to change the subject; he also needs something to run on. Why isn’t he calling for an end to school disparity? These school issues would give Fairfax a way to go into rural Virginia and perhaps mine some votes he wouldn’t otherwise get in a Democratic primary. Likewise, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, has been mentioned as a candidate for governor. She doesn’t have the statewide profile of the other two – running on a platform of fixing school disparity would be a way to scramble the dynamics. For that matter, Herring could champion a fix – he’s certainly not been shy about other things. Why isn’t this his signature issue?
On the Republican side, there’s Stanley, who has sometimes been mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office. Democrats are generally seen as having the advantage over Republicans on education issues; Stanley’s advocacy for school equality would be a way to counter those impressions. The school disparity issues may not sell in a Republican nominating contest, but if Stanley could get the nomination, he might be able to discombobulate Democrats in a general election by cutting a very different profile than what one expects of a conservative from rural Virginia. Do Democrats really want to defend unequal schools? That’s effectively what they’re doing now, whether they realize it or not. Someone just needs to call them on it.
Ultimately, this issue needs more than a single candidate — but a statewide candidate would have the ability to focus attention on it in a way we haven’t seen in more than seven decades. In 1949, Francis Pickens Miller made state funding for school construction his main issue in his campaign for governor. He lost — but the state’s ruling party was so spooked that it went ahead and built the schools anyway.
So, who makes the first move in 2020 and beyond? Silence is really just a form of consent to a system of unequal schools.