The General Assembly is busy making lots of changes: new gun laws, an end to Lee-Jackson Day, and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
However, the proposal that would make the most substantial change — at least in terms of the number of people affected — has received scant attention.
It was introduced with no fanfare on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, perhaps a symbolic choice by the sponsor.
The most radical part of this measure consists of just three words, which on the surface seem quite innocuous but would have far-reaching ramifications — particularly in rural Virginia and the state’s biggest cities.
It’s a proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state to provide “equal educational opportunities” for all students. That requirement might seem so basic that you’d think it would already be in the state constitution. It’s not, though, and that’s why courts have allowed the vast disparities that exist between the course offerings in the state’s poorest schools and its most affluent ones.
Now, for the kicker: This proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t come from some social justice warrior on the left; it comes from one of the state’s most conservative legislators — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. In the past two years, Stanley has emerged as the biggest — and to some, the most unlikely — champion of addressing the disparities in Virginia’s public schools. For this, he has been met by a stunning bipartisan silence. A year ago, Stanley proposed a state bond referendum to spend $3 billion on school construction to address the “crumbling schools” that Gov. Ralph Northam — a Democrat — bemoaned in his inaugural address. Crumbling is not a rhetorical overreach, either. A few years ago in Northam’s home city of Norfolk, a 750-pound chunk of the ceiling collapsed during a band concert at Maury High School — a building now more than a century old. Last year, the Senate Finance Committee spent just three minutes killing Stanley’s bond proposal by a vote of 14-2. This year, he’s back with the same proposal. Will it fare any better? We’ll see. He’s also introduced a bill to establish minimum standards for Virginia’s school buildings. There are standards for lots of things, but not the buildings — one reason that state government simply shrugs at antiquated facilities that struggle to handle modern technology.
One reason Richmond does so is because schools are seen as a local responsibility. The fact that many localities can’t afford to pay for them is considered irrelevant. That’s where Stanley’s proposed constitutional amendment comes from. When Virginia adopted its present constitution, it specifically avoided guaranteeing an equal education to all its students. The original draft called for public schools of “high quality.” At some point, the phrase was amended to read that the state “shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” The key phrase there is not “high quality,” it’s “shall seek to ensure” because that doesn’t mandate anything. That provoked a debate in the 1969 General Assembly that temporarily united the state’s most prominent liberals — Democrats such as Henry Howell and George Rawlings — with Republicans from western Virginia — legislators such as Caldwell Butler, Pete Giesen, Clyde Pearson and James Turk. Rawlings said he was “shocked” by the loophole: “We can be ‘seeking to’ and ‘striving to’ for the next 30 years. We should, in this Constitution, establish an absolute dedication to high quality education.” Rawlings was wrong only in his time estimate; 51 years later, we’re still “seeking to.” The conservative Democrats who then ran the General Assembly voted down this coalition of upstarts 70-23 in the House, 28-10 in the Senate. By those votes in March 1969 Virginia enshrined school disparity in its constitution.
In the 1990s, a group of mostly rural school systems — including Radford and Pulaski County — sued Virginia over unequal school funding. In 1994, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against them for the very reasons that Rawlings and other legislators had once warned about: The constitution’s language isn’t a mandate, it’s merely an aspiration. If students in Northern Virginia are afforded educational opportunities that students in rural Virginia aren’t, that’s just too bad. And let’s not kid ourselves: There are very real disparities. In Arlington, $20,460 is spent on every student. In Norton, just $9,219 is. Now, there’s an obvious difference in cost of living between the D.C. suburbs and the coalfields, and money isn’t everything. But it does translate into some things — Arlington can offer classes and equipment that Norton can’t. And Norton can’t afford to make up the difference — not when its median household income is about $27,000 and Arlington’s is more than $122,000. That, of course, is why the conservative Democrats who ran the legislature in 1969 didn’t want to guarantee an equal education for everyone — they feared it would be too expensive. Merely “seeking to” is rhetorically rich and fiscally cheap.
In the aftermath of the 1994 court decision, there was an effort in 1995 to amend the constitution. That measure drew 23 patrons — both Democrats and Republicans, mostly but not exclusively from rural Virginia. It was an issue that once again united some of the most liberal members of the legislature (such as Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth) with some of the most conservative (such as Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County). It also died in a curious way. It was “passed by” in the House Rules Committee, a nice way of killing the measure. Strangely, five members were recorded as absent — an unusually high number. That allowed for a 3-2 vote against the amendment. Knowing the legislature like we do, it sure looks like five legislators simply “took a walk” so they wouldn’t have their fingerprints at the scene — knowing that the legislators left would vote down the amendment. Those three “no” votes, by the way, all came from Democrats — House Speaker Tom Moss, Alan Diamonstein and Bob Ball. All, notably, came from the state’s urban crescent.
Stanley’s proposed amendment is more emphatic than the 1995 version. That would have required “substantially equal educational opportunities.” His version flat-out calls for equality. In 1969, liberal Democrats joined with western Republicans to insist that the state guarantee equal schools. In 2019, they have the opportunity to do so again. Will they?