The greatest political analyst of all time is not some talking head on some television network or even the sage Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia.
It’s Sir Isaac Newton, of falling-apple and head-conking fame.
That’s because a lot of politics operate according to Newton’s Laws of Motion, particularly the first one which says, in part, that an object at rest will remain at rest unless something makes it move. This is also called the Law of Inertia and the political application should be clear: Legislative bodies generally don’t do things unless there’s some political pressure.
Individual politicians may act out of conscience (the physics-to-politics analogy isn’t absolute) but, collectively, it’s hard to get a whole legislative body to act unless something is making it act.
Virginia certainly knows quite a bit about the Law of Inertia, particularly when it comes to the subject of state funding for school construction. In the early 1950s, Gov. John Battle proposed, and the General Assembly funded, a $75 million school construction package. (The Inflation Calculator says that would be equal to almost $868 million today.) That set off a wave of school construction through the ’50s, and many of those buildings are still in use today.
Battle – and the Byrd Machine-dominated General Assembly – didn’t act on their own, though.They felt political pressure in the form of Francis Pickens Miller, who mounted a primary challenge in 1949 and came close to upsetting Battle, the establishment favorite. Miller’s big issue was state funding for school construction. Faced with a restive populace, the Byrd Machine decided to preempt future challenges by embracing state-funded school construction for a spell.
The question now is: More than seven decades later, are we seeing enough political pressure to get the General Assembly moving again on providing some significant state funding for school construction?
There is certainly some movement – we just don’t know yet how much there will be. There’s probably some physics involved in that, too. We’ve seen more bills related to school construction and modernization introduced in this session of the General Assembly than I can remember. What’s particularly fascinating is the changing politics of school construction. What’s frustrating is all the ways they have yet to change.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, recently told a fellow legislator who was asking about school funding: “School construction has never been a function of state government,” he said. “It’s always been a function of local government.”
Well, not quite never, but Knight’s basic point is true – and that’s the problem.
There are lots of localities – mostly rural communities – that simply can’t afford the astronomical costs of building new schools, or modernizing old ones. It’s no accident that the state’s most egregious examples of “crumbling schools” – the phrase then-Gov. Ralph Northam once used – are mostly in rural areas or small cities such as Bristol, where one school was declared “functionally obsolete” more than a decade ago but is still in use.
Some localities have gotten permission from the state to raise local sales taxes if the extra revenue is devoted to schools, but tax-averse Republicans in House Finance last week killed the latest requests – one from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, on behalf of her city but also including a bill from one of their own, Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, who was asking on behalf of Prince Edward County. Afterwards, he told the South Boston News and Record that he was “totally blindsided” by the bill’s defeat and that “I have never been as upset in my 13 years being in state office as I was in that moment.”
The same panel also killed a bill by Hudson that would have given all localities the power to raise the sales tax for school construction. Interestingly, the Democratic Senate has passed — with significant support from rural Republicans — a similiar bill, although that would now seem doomed in the House, as well. (Among the Republicans who backed the bill in the Senate are such stalwart conservatives as Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County; Todd Pillion, R-Washington County and Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County)
The demise of those bills would seem bad news for those seeking more funding for school construction. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. We simply don’t know the full context of these House Finance votes. Are House Finance Republicans voting these bills down because they don’t want to open the door to any taxe increases anywhere, no matter how worthy the cause? Or because they don’t care about school construction? Or because they see other, more comprehensive, ways to achieve the goal of state funding for school construction and modernization — of which there are some options now on the table before the legislature? We don’t know yet.
While those votes in House Finance may have gone along ideological lines, the question of state funding for school construction is one that generally defies our usual left-right axis, as the quote from Edmunds, and the votes from Hackworth, Pillion and Stanley illustrate.
Here’s how the present fits into the past, and vice versa: In 1949, the push for state funding for school construction very much came from the left, which is how Miller was perceived at the time. In the late 1990s, there was another push for state funding for school construction, which at the time was led by Democrats – although in hindsight what we really saw was that it was rural Democrats from Southwest Virginia in favor and suburban Republicans in Northern Virginia who were against. Hold that thought. In 1998, the chief proponent for state funding for school construction was then-Del. Tom Jackson, D-Carroll County (not a place where you find many D’s these days). One of the most vocal opponents was then-Del. John Rollison, R-Prince William County (a place where you find fewer R’s these days). In one famous exchange, Rollison said: “We would end up paying for our own schools and also schools in Delegate Jackson’s district. Some members of his caucus walk around with almost a chip on their shoulder. ‘I’m rural. I’m disadvantaged. I need help.’”
Jackson’s proposal then was to use lottery proceeds for school construction. It’s notable that at the time that a Republican from this part of Virginia — state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County — suggested a compromise, namely having some lottery proceeds go toward school construction. Neither idea flew. If they had, Virginia would have spent more than $11 billion on school construction and we wouldn’t be in the hole we’re in now.
It turns out that the key driver in 1998 may not have been which side of the aisle legislators were on but which side of the state. Our politics have realigned a lot since then – there are now no Democratic legislators west of Roanoke and no Republicans from Northern Virginia until you get out to the exurbs. But geography has trumped a lot of politics. In recent years, it’s been rural Republicans who have been the most vocal in making the case for state funding for school construction and Democrats – Northern Virginia Democrats – who have been the most resistant to the idea. We did see one breakthrough last year: The state Senate unexpectedly passed Stanley’s proposal for an advisory referendum on a $4 billion state bond issue, only to see Democrats strangle it in a House committee. And the General Assembly – then under complete Democratic control – did authorize a commission, chaired by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, to study the physical state of Virginia’s schools.
Study commissions are often a polite way to kill something but this one has produced a lot of smaller bills that are now moving through the legislature. For instance: Stanley has a bill, emanating from that commission (on which he served), that would require schools to use any unspent funds on school construction and modernization. I won’t attempt to catalog all the bills because I might miss one but we’re seeing school construction pop up as a priority in lots of places. Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, who, like Stanley, has been one of the legislature’s most persistent advocates for state funding, has a bill that would create a matching grant fund. Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, has a bill to do away with the state’s tax on groceries – but it also dedicates a share of sales tax revenue on other things to schools. Republicans who are trying to write a law to govern the state’s coming legal market for cannabis are looking at dedicating some of the tax revenue to schools. That could be a big Republican offer on school construction instead of local sales taxes, and perhaps even a better one. Sales taxes are inherently regressive, so we’re essentially asking some of the poorest localities in the state to impose a regressive tax. That doesn’t sound very progressive. Surely there’s a better way, right? Maybe the cannabis tax revenue is it?
More significantly, we’re starting to see the push for state funding for school construction coming from places other than the western part of the state. McClellan sponsored that Senate bill allowing localities to raise sales taxes for schools, as fraught as that concept might be. She’s also carrying a bill that would require that 3% of any state budget surplus go to a school construction fund. Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam proposed $500 million for school construction in his final budget. Context: The state’s school construction needs are now believed to total about $25 billion so $500 million is nowhere close. On the other hand, it’s still a major step forward from the old philosophy that school construction is purely a local matter. Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun County, has upped the ante even more: He’s proposed using $6 billion of the state’s projected $13.4 billion surplus in coming years for school construction. In a commentary published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Reid wrote: “This, combined with an equal amount of local funding, could provide $12 billion to address a $25 billion problem.”
Now we’re talking.
But you know who’s not talking? Gov. Glenn Youngkin. For a politician who owes his election to rural voters, this silence on an issue of unique salience to rural communities seems odd – and noticeable. We know Youngkin has an interest in schools. He’s “banned” the phantom menace of critical race theory and set up a tipline to root out any other “divisive” teaching people want to report. (A question: In many communities, particularly rural ones, finding teachers is a big workforce challenge. Will this make it more or less likely that people go into teaching? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.) He’s proposed funding for 20 charter schools around Virginia, but nary a mention about school construction.
Here’s the problem with what Youngkin has done on schools so far: It’s not that these are good moves or bad moves (opinions obviously vary), but they are largely irrelevant moves to the communities that voted most strongly for him.
Critical race theory has always been a completely bogus issue. It’s not being taught. To the extent there has been controversy over silly things schools are doing, it’s been in Northern Virginia, not here. Youngkin is too smart a man not to know all this – he didn’t get to become co-CEO of the world’s second largest private equity firm by accident. He must know that everything he’s done on critical race theory is simply showmanship. I don’t begrudge a politician a little showmanship, that comes with the territory, but it would be good if there were some substance to go along with all this empty razzle-dazzle.
Youngkin’s proposal on charter schools is surely substance but, again, this is something with little practical effect in most rural areas. Let’s do the math: Youngkin wants 20 charter schools. That’s 1.8 per congressional district. In a geographically compact district in Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads, maybe that makes a difference. But out here? Not really. In the 5th District, that’s not even one for the three biggest cities – Charlottesville, Danville and Lynchburg. In the 6th District that now stretches from Roanoke to Winchester, is our 1.8 allotment really going to make a difference? Think about the topographical reality of the 9th District: Right now, Buchanan County is debating whether to have a consolidated high school. One argument against: It would mean hour-long bus rides for some students. So let’s put our 1.8 charter schools in the 9th; heck, let’s bump that up to two. Maybe one works for the Bristol-Abingdon area and one works for the New River area, but all those other folks – the distance just doesn’t work. Are students in Buchanan County really going to ride another hour to some charter school? I think not. I know some people get excited about charter schools, and some get worked up against them, and that’s a good debate to have but, as a practical matter, they just really seem irrelevant to most of rural Virginia.
But the problem of schools that are literally falling apart is not.
That’s why I’m so baffled that Youngkin is spending so much of his schools-related agenda on things that don’t matter to the places that voted for him by such thundering margins. Surely he doesn’t believe Virginia should help build the Washington Football Team a gleaming new football stadium while schools that the children of his strongest supports attend are falling apart?
We have a bipartisan consensus forming that the state needs to do something about school constructtion and moderization, even if there may not be a consensus yet on just what that something is. This is where we come back to some basic science that I’d hope we’d still be teaching in schools. If we really want to see some real momentum to deal with the problem of out-of-date and falling-down schools, we need more of that net external force that Newton referred to in his First Law of Motion. We need the governor.