Modernization for Equal Education

By: Rachel Lugay, L’19

“We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down.”[1] In 1997, former President Bill Clinton addressed the overwhelming number of school buildings in disrepair calling it “a serious national concern.”[2] The unhealthy and unsafe conditions of American public schools have been a mostly unresolved issue for decades.[3] At the heart of the problem are inequalities between wealthy and poor school districts.[4] The most acute effects of the mediocre conditions are felt by poor students and racial minorities.[5] The disproportionate racial and socioeconomic conditions facing today’s schools can be traced back to Brown v. Board of Education era “separate but equal” tactics.[6] In Virginia, the attempted pushback from the Brown decision took many forms, one of which was the General Assembly halting funding to school districts that were court-ordered to integrate, which in effect shut down many schools.[7]

Although the condition of public schools has been discussed for many years, modernization efforts remain stagnant. Many attribute the lack of progression to a lack of funding.[8] Because school funding flows from property taxes, the sub-par conditions of many public-schools across American urban areas is directly tied with housing segregation.[9] The city of Richmond is no stranger to these public school and housing issues. Dilapidated Richmond Public Schools are largely attended by impoverished students from low-income areas while bordering economically diverse counties enjoy advanced learning facilities.[10] The low-income Richmond areas are faced with an obstacle course of setbacks, such as gang violence and neglected housing projects.[11] In a critique of the public school system, the director of a local youth volunteer program stated “our kids are coming out worse than they go in … [y]ou’ve got concentrated poverty, concentrated trauma in public housing – then you concentrate it even more by sending roughly 950 kids from all these different neighborhoods into the same building for seven hours a day.”[12] While the poor schooling conditions are indeed multifaceted, the city is making efforts to begin the process of repairing and rebuilding by fixing the infrastructure of Central Virginia public schools.

In Virginia, at the forefront of the upcoming November 7th election is a proposed modernization referendum. The School Modernization Charter Change campaign is an initiative proposed by The Richmond Crusade for Voters, an organization founded in 1956 to promote integration and the influence of black residents in politics.[13] If approved, the modernization referendum would push city leaders to fix Richmond Public Schools’ aging infrastructure.[14] The Referendum, in part, reads:

(b) DUTY OF THE MAYOR

Not later than six months after this section becomes law, the Mayor shall formally present to the City Council a fully-funded plan to modernize the city’s K-12 educational infrastructure consistent with national standards or inform City Council such a plan is not feasible. In fulfilling the duties herein, the Mayor shall consult with the School Board, City Council, consider cost savings available in state or federal law and further provide an opportunity for public participation.

(c) NO NEW OR INCREASED TAXES

The fully-funded plan required in subsection (b) cannot be based on the passage of new or increased taxes for that purpose. Due to the requirement that Mayor Stoney develop a fully funded plan within six months without a tax increase, this referendum faces some opposition.[15] Some feel that this is an unnecessarily heavy-handed approach to fixing the city’s issue, while others feel that this is a push the city needs to get things moving.[16] In a study done by Richmond Times-Dispatch, a majority of Richmond residents would support a tax increase for new and renovated schools.[17]

Despite the apparent approval of tax increases for much needed improvements, some argue that budget cuts in other departments, including the Mayor’s office, could help to fund renovations instead.[18] Some also point to the School Modernization Act, introduced in May by Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.[19] The act modifies the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits so it could apply to school building modification.[20] This would allow for cities and towns across Virginia to renovate their deteriorating schools, even on a tight budget. The Federal Preservation Tax Incentives Program has already helped to restore more than 1200 structures since 1997. The Federal Preservation Tax Incentives Act could be used to fix approximately 800 K-12 schools in Virginia including Armstrong High, John Marshall High, Woodville Elementary and Binford Middle School.[21]

While the ballot in this year’s election offers an option for repairing Richmond Public Schools, the issue intersects with housing, wealth and racial disparities. Ensuring that all students get the equal education they deserve will take more than just a vote, it will take much needed time, effort and sacrifice.

 

[1] The Associated Press, President Clinton’s Message to Congress on the State of the Union, The New York Times (Feb. 5, 1997), http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/05/us/president-clinton-s-message-to-congress-on-the-state-of-the-union.html.

[2] The Associated Press, President Clinton’s Message to Congress on the State of the Union, The New York Times (Feb. 5, 1997), http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/05/us/president-clinton-s-message-to-congress-on-the-state-of-the-union.html.

[3] Rachel M. Cohen, Fixing Our Infrastructure? How About Schools?, The American Prospect (May 23, 2017), http://prospect.org/article/fixing-our-infrastructure-how-about-schools.

[4] Rachel M. Cohen, Fixing Our Infrastructure? How About Schools?, The American Prospect (May 23, 2017), http://prospect.org/article/fixing-our-infrastructure-how-about-schools.

[5] Rachel M. Cohen, Fixing Our Infrastructure? How About Schools?, The American Prospect (May 23, 2017), http://prospect.org/article/fixing-our-infrastructure-how-about-schools.

[6] Barry Gabay, Socioeconomic Integration and the Richmond School District: The Feasibility of Interdistrict Consolidation, 51 U. Rich. L. Rev. 397, 401-402 (2015), http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1117&context=law-student-publications.

[7] Barry Gabay, Socioeconomic Integration and the Richmond School District: The Feasibility of Interdistrict Consolidation, 51 U. Rich. L. Rev. 397, 401-402 (2015), http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1117&context=law-student-publications.

[8] Rachel M. Cohen, Fixing Our Infrastructure? How About Schools?, The American Prospect (May 23, 2017), http://prospect.org/article/fixing-our-infrastructure-how-about-schools.

[9] Barry Gabay, Socioeconomic Integration and the Richmond School District: The Feasibility of Interdistrict Consolidation, 51 U. Rich. L. Rev. 397 (2015), http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1117&context=law-student-publications.

[10] Barry Gabay, Socioeconomic Integration and the Richmond School District: The Feasibility of Interdistrict Consolidation, 51 U. Rich. L. Rev. 397 (2015), http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1117&context=law-student-publications.

[11] Ned Oliver, Why do teens keep getting murdered in Richmond? Inside the gang violence in the city’s public housing communities, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Jun. 25, 2017), http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/why-do-teens-keep-getting-murdered-in-richmond-inside-the/article_b1c0b104-1e1f-580c-b541-b58c47cd3e99.html.

[12] Ned Oliver, Why do teens keep getting murdered in Richmond? Inside the gang violence in the city’s public housing communities, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Jun. 25, 2017), http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/why-do-teens-keep-getting-murdered-in-richmond-inside-the/article_b1c0b104-1e1f-580c-b541-b58c47cd3e99.html.

[13] Jackie Kruszewski, A Proposition for Richmond, Richmond Magazine (Oct. 13, 2017 at 2:44PM), http://richmondmagazine.com/news/news/a-proposition-for-richmond/.

[14] Jackie Kruszewski, A Proposition for Richmond, Richmond Magazine (Oct. 13, 2017 at 2:44PM), http://richmondmagazine.com/news/news/a-proposition-for-richmond/.

[15] Jackie Kruszewski, A Proposition for Richmond, Richmond Magazine (Oct. 13, 2017 at 2:44PM), http://richmondmagazine.com/news/news/a-proposition-for-richmond/.

[16] Aaron Thomas, Richmond School Board discussing referendum to modernize schools, WRIC (Oct. 16, 2017), http://wric.com/2017/10/16/richmond-school-board-discussing-referendum-to-modernize-schools/, see also Jackie Kruszewski, A Proposition for Richmond, Richmond Magazine (Oct. 13, 2017 at 2:44PM), http://richmondmagazine.com/news/news/a-proposition-for-richmond/.

[17] Ned Oliver & Mark Robinson, RTD-CNU Poll: Richmond voters say they support tax increase for schools, oppose public money for stadium and coliseum, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Oct. 4, 2017), http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/rtd-cnu-poll-richmond-voters-say-they-support-tax-increase/article_69df7ae9-43f5-5855-88f9-e8f3e30413cd.html.

[18] Jackie Kruszewski, A Proposition for Richmond, Richmond Magazine (Oct. 13, 2017 at 2:44PM), http://richmondmagazine.com/news/news/a-proposition-for-richmond/.

[19] Nakell Williams, Senators introduce bill to invest in aging Central Virginia schools, WRIC (May 18, 2017, 5:18PM), http://wric.com/2017/05/18/senators-introduce-bill-to-invest-in-aging-central-virginia-schools/.

[20] Nakell Williams, Senators introduce bill to invest in aging Central Virginia schools, WRIC (May 18, 2017, 5:18PM), http://wric.com/2017/05/18/senators-introduce-bill-to-invest-in-aging-central-virginia-schools/.

[21] Nakell Williams, Senators introduce bill to invest in aging Central Virginia schools, WRIC (May 18, 2017, 5:18PM), http://wric.com/2017/05/18/senators-introduce-bill-to-invest-in-aging-central-virginia-schools/.

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