There may be no better evidence of Virginia’s need to upgrade its history education than the debate over “school choice” now playing out in Richmond.
The Virginia Constitution specifies in Article VIII, Section 10, that “No appropriation of public funds shall be made to any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the State or some political subdivision thereof ...”
There are some caveats to those provisions, of course, but the intent of the language is pretty straightforward: Taxpayer money for education must be used for state-run, nonsectarian schools.
That such language is needed in the commonwealth’s governing document is also pretty straightforward. In the fight following the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling, Virginia sought to block integration by closing public schools and allowing public money to be used to educate white children in private institutions.
“Massive Resistance,” as that effort was known, was one of the darkest periods in the history of a state which has seen more than its share of grim times. To close the doors of school houses to Black children, including in Norfolk, in defiance of the Supreme Court, federal law and common decency was a cruel and disgusting act, a stain on Virginia’s reputation that will never fade.
Seeking to prevent a repeat of such malevolent behavior, and to put that chapter firmly in the past, the 1971 revision of the state Constitution included that language about how public money for education could be used. It set firm boundaries on its application — with good reason.
This latest effort to enact a school choice program, cosponsored by Virginia Beach Republican Del. Glenn Davis, is not an attempt to resegregate public schools or breathe new life into the sort of ugliness wrought by Massive Resistance. Rather, it is reasonable to conclude that Davis’ legislation is well intentioned, if misguided.
Davis and his Republican colleagues, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin, argue that providing choice to parents is the remedy for public education. They firmly believe that removing students — and the money assigned to each pupil — from public schools will result in better outcomes, though the experience in other states is far from conclusive.
Democrats contend that fully funding public schools — raising per-pupil expenditures, increasing teacher pay, hiring assistants and tutors, purchasing needed equipment and upgrading facilities — is the more equitable and egalitarian solution since a strong system of public education is the best hope for future generations.
But that debate, while compelling, is academic unless the constitutional limitations that govern school funding are removed. That’s why previous attempts to implement school choice in Virginia have failed.
In 2016, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a school choice bill, saying in his statement that, “This legislation undercuts local school boards’ constitutional authority to assign students to schools. The local school board has the preeminent role over local public education, and HB518 would unconstitutionally infringe on that role.”
In vetoing a similar bill the following year, McAuliffe specifically cited the state Constitution in his statement: “Tuition at private sectarian institutions would be an approved expense. This places the legislation in direct conflict with Article VIII, Section 10, of the Virginia Constitution, which authorizes the use of public funds only for public and nonsectarian private schools.”
It remains to be seen how that may be affected by a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that struck down language in the Montana Constitution prohibiting funding for religious purposes, enshrined in Article IV, Section 16, of the Virginia Constitution. It’s likely such a conflict would require resolution in court.
Certainly Virginia should have a robust debate about how to strengthen public education in the commonwealth and improve outcomes. It needs to explore innovative solutions and borrow best practices from elsewhere when those show promise.
But the state Constitution is clear that paying private schools with public money is prohibited. And that obstacle won’t be easily overcome.