Editorial: Another General Assembly vote to perpetuate school disparity

Last week, General Assembly committees took two votes to perpetuate a system of unequal schools in Virginia. That’s not how the legislators on one side of the issue would describe those votes, but it seems a fair assessment nonetheless.

First, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee punted until next year consideration of a constitutional amendment that would require “equal educational opportunities” across the state. We wrote about that last week. The other vote came in the Senate Finance Committee. It voted to “pass by indefinitely” a bill calling for a statewide referendum on whether to issue $3 billion in bonds for school construction, a measure that would have most benefited financially stressed localities in rural and urban Virginia where schools tend to be the oldest and in the most disrepair.

Both these measures were introduced by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who has emerged as an unlikely champion of addressing the disparities between Virginia’s richest and poorest schools. We say “unlikely” because he’s a conservative Republican, and this used to be an issue that most animated liberal Democrats, but now that they’re in power, they seem to have lost their enthusiasm. Indeed, some of the most hostile questions about the proposed bond issue came from Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County. 

There is some small measure of progress. Last year it took Senate Finance just three minutes to kill the bond proposal by a vote of 14-2. This year, it generated seven minutes worth of discussion until Senate Finance voted 11-5 for a polite form of legislative death.

The queries mostly took this form: For technical reasons, this proposed referendum would not be binding. Virginia has never held an advisory referendum before. Why bother when the legislature could just go ahead and do something? As state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, put it: “Why don’t we summon the courage to introduce legislation to fix the problem? I know it’s a problem. I stare at it every single day. Let’s just raise taxes and fix it.” Those aren’t bad questions, except that not a single legislator has proposed to do so. Stanley seemed to suggest that voter approval in a referendum would give legislators “intestinal fortitude”— another way to say “political cover” for voting for a tax increase for schools. Politically, that’s not a bad answer. In fact, it’s a realistic one, especially given what we just said about the absolute lack of legislative initiative to fix the problem. Deeds asked why he and Stanley don’t join together to ask the governor to send down special legislation to raise the money. “I’m not averse to that,” Stanley said. That’s a great idea. Why don’t they? We’re waiting. But we’ve been waiting a long time, on lots of people. In his inaugural address, Gov. Ralph Northam bemoaned “crumbling schools” — but hasn’t followed through in any substantive way.

What we saw from the seven minutes of back-and-forth was mostly Democrats trying to score political points on a Republican — because fixing the problem would require some money and Stanley hasn’t actually proposed raising it yet. He did, though, say that if voters approve a referendum, legislators would be compelled to find the money “even if it takes what you’re asking” — which is as close to endorsing a tax increase as you’ll ever find from a Republican. It’s easy to fault Stanley for proposing an incremental path to a solution as opposed to an outright solution — except that we don’t see any Democrats proposing the solution they fault Stanley for not offering. Instead, we give credit to Stanley for putting the issue on the table, however incomplete it might be.

It’s notable that the five senators on record in favor of the bond issue constitute a bipartisan mix that spans the ideological spectrum; Deeds, Adam Ebbin of Alexandria and Dave Marsden of Fairfax County for the Democrats, Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County and Jill Vogel of Fauquier County for the Republicans.

However, the 11 votes to deep-six the measure are likewise bipartisan. George Barker of Fairfax County, John Edwards of Roanoke, Janet Howell of Fairfax County, Mamie Locke of Hampton, Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, Chap Petersen of Fairfax and Saslaw for the Democrats; Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, Steve Newman of Lynchburg and Tommy Norment of James City County for the Republicans.

We are disappointed in all 11 senators but we are disappointed in some more than others. Edwards, being from Roanoke and representing a district that stretches as far away as Giles County, should have more appreciation for the problems rural Virginia faces. Ditto Hanger, who represents a mostly rural district. Meanwhile, Locke and Lucas hail from the two most urban districts on the committee. Their districts both have schools so old that they pre-date America’s entry into World War I. Lucas, in particular, has been a big proponent of casinos as a way to raise money. Why isn’t she championing this measure? The senator whose vote most perplexes us is McClellan. First, she represents part of Richmond, which has some of the oldest schools in the state, one of which really is “crumbling.” A few years ago, a fifth-grader at George Washington Carver Elementary was hit the head when a chunk of ceiling came falling down. More recently, George Mason Elementary, built in 1922, had to close for a day when its heating system failed. Secondly, McClellan served on the sub-committee that two years ago toured some of the state’s most dilapidated schools. She’s certainly seen the problem first-hand. Third, she’s positioned herself as an advocate for education, declaring just last week that “every child, regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of the block they live in, deserves a free high quality public education.” Rhetorically, she’s there, but her vote here wasn’t. Fourth, she’s shown an interest in statewide office, perhaps even governor. In crass political terms — often a motivator when other things fail — she could benefit from endorsing this bond issue. It would give her a way to potentially do something other Democratic contenders can’t —go into rural Virginia and squeeze out a few extra votes that her party otherwise would forfeit. This seems a missed opportunity of the highest order.

So let’s return to the question Deeds posed: Will he and Stanley ask Northam to send down special legislation? We don’t expect it but now that Deeds has raised the question, we consider the clock to be running for all three of them anyway.