Senate District 1. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
Senate District 1. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

In the northern Shenandoah Valley, eight candidates are seeking the Republican nomination for an open state Senate seat.

In theory, a candidate could win Tuesday’s primary with as little as 12.51% of the vote and then go on to win the seat because this is a 68% Republican district.

Not surprisingly, many of the candidates are trying to appeal to a Republican electorate by showing how conservative they are. (The same thing happens in Democratic primaries, just in reverse.)

One candidate, though, has gone someplace that no one else has dared: He’s called for abolishing the public school system.  Or, at least, abolishing the constitutional mandate for one.

Shenandoah County Supervisor Brad Pollack told the Strasburg-based Northern Virginia Daily: “I will fight to replace the Constitutional amendment mandating public schools and replacing it with $10,000 per student for parents to spend on schools of their choice.”

He told The Winchester Star he was in favor of “repealing the 1870 amendment to the Constitution of Virginia mandating public schools. We don’t need it anymore. We can replace it with giving every parent $10,000 per student and still save billions of dollars and have plenty of money left over for special needs.” 

This is the logical, if extreme, conclusion of the philosophy behind school choice: Give parents the money and let the free market work things out.

This seems a curious thing for a rural politician to advocate, given that rural communities are typically more attached to their schools than those in more metro areas are — the whole “Friday Night Lights” phenomenon, if nothing else. In Shenandoah County, those lights shine for the Central Falcons, the Strasburg Rams, the Mountain View Generals (although Pollack prefers the school revert to its original name, Stonewall Jackson).

There are also lots of finance-related questions about how Pollack’s proposal might work: Ten thousand dollars goes further in Lee County than it does in Loudoun County, so a flat rate would disadvantage parents in high-cost parts of the state — and make it difficult for Republicans to reclaim lost seats in the suburbs. 

Furthermore, the state Department of Education says that Shenandoah County currently spends $14,229 per student, a mix of local, state and federal funds. In fact, the lowest per capita rate in the state is higher than Pollock’s $10,000 — that would be $10,914 in Giles County. The state average is $15,541. Without getting into the details of who spends the money, Pollack’s proposal would cut the total amount spent on students statewide by 35%. In Winchester, the school system in Senate District 1 that spends the most on students at $16,895, the cut would be just under 41%. This is likely what Pollack means by how his proposal would “save billions of dollars.” Presumably localities could still operate a public school system if they wanted, just with a lot less funding. But if some locality wanted to do away with public schools completely, then under this proposal that would be just fine.

We could have a fascinating philosophical discussion about school choice, or school funding in general. However, the problem with Pollack’s proposal has nothing to do with any of that. The problem is one that many don’t realize: Virginia’s constitution doesn’t mandate public schools because we think they’re good things to have (although there is that). Virginia’s constitution mandates public schools because Congress required it as a condition of Virginia being readmitted to the Union in 1870.

Yes, folks, gather ’round. It’s time for a history lesson.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the overarching political question was how to deal with the defeated Confederate states — and how to bring them back into the Union. The prevailing view among the Republicans who controlled Congress was that it wasn’t sufficient to simply abolish slavery and guarantee the vote for those freed from enslavement; they felt that white Southern society needed to be reformed to prevent future rebellions.

One of the many divisions between North and South before (and after) the war was education. Most Northern states had created public school systems; Southern states had not. One result was that illiteracy rates among whites were four times higher in the South than the North. The 1850 census, which asked about literacy, found that 18.6% of adult whites in Virginia could neither read nor write, nearly double the national average of 10.2%. Of course, Virginia, like other Southern states, had made it a crime to teach its enslaved population how to read or write.

“Some in Congress believed that the lack of education in the South was a source of the Civil War itself,” University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black wrote in the Stanford Law Review in 2018. “The South had withheld education for a reason: The education of the masses was ‘a threat to the social order’ that elites were determined to avoid. By withholding education, elites could more easily dominate the political system and move an entire region, regardless of the interests of the masses, to secession.”

Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Massachusetts, insisted that Southern states set up public school systems before they could be readmitted to the Union. Photo by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Massachusetts, insisted that Southern states set up public school systems before they could be readmitted to the Union. Photo by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In plainer language, Republicans believed that the planter class in the South had conned illiterate poor whites who didn’t own slaves into supporting a slave-holding Confederacy. “It is not too much to say that had these States been more enlightened they would never have rebelled,” declared U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Massachusetts. “A population that could not read and write naturally failed to comprehend and appreciate a republican government.” That led to one thing, Black writes: “Enshrining access to education in the South was at the forefront of Reconstruction.”

Two years after Appomattox, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which spelled out multiple conditions that the Southern states had to meet to be readmitted to the Union, such as drafting new constitutions, granting former male slaves the right to vote and ratifying the 14th Amendment, which granted equal rights to former slaves. Sumner proposed another condition: that Southern states be required “to establish and sustain a system of public schools open to all, without distinction of race or color.” That provision failed on a tie vote in the Senate.

Even though Congress failed to make a public school system an explicit requirement, it remained an implicit one. Every Southern state made a public school system part of its post-war constitution. However, the former Confederate states were not readmitted all at once. Three states lagged behind in the process: Mississippi, Texas and Virginia. For those three, Congress changed the rules of the game — and required that their constitutions include provisions for a public school system.

The congressional act that readmitted Virginia to the Union in 1870 specifically declares “that the constitution of Virginia shall never be so amended or changed as to deprive any citizen or class of citizens of the United States of the school rights and privileges secured by the constitution of said State.” The bills readmitting Mississippi and Texas contain the same language.

Virginia has changed its constitution twice since 1870 — in 1902 and 1971 — but the mandate for a public school system remains. Article 8, Section 1 declares: “The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” 

The clause about “shall seek to ensure …” has often been debated; when the General Assembly was voting on the constitution in 1969, it was Republicans (led by Del. Pete Giesen of Augusta County) who tried to change the wording to something stronger, and failed. That’s why the Virginia Supreme Court in 1994 ruled that this language about school quality was merely “aspirational,” ruling against a coalition of mostly Republican-voting rural school systems from Southwest and Southside which alleged that the state was violating the constitution by not sufficiently funding them at a level to guarantee that “educational program of high quality.” However, no one has ever challenged the first part of that sentence about requiring a public school system — until now. 

Pollack is wrong to refer to this provision as “the 1870 amendment to the Constitution of Virginia.” It is no amendment. It is a fundamental — and required — part of that constitution. It may be quibbling to dispute his description, but the essential point is that this public school requirement is not a part of the state constitution that can somehow be repealed — not without violating the terms of Virginia’s status as a state.

What would happen if Virginia somehow did decide to abolish its public school system? We could have a lovely parlor game speculating as to the consequences. Would some federal judge rule that Virginia was in violation of the law and thus accordingly must be stripped of statehood and revert to the First Military District, as it was known during Reconstruction? Not really. Instead that judge would simply point to that 1870 act of Congress and order Virginia to comply with the law — and might well ask why he or she had to rule on something so glaringly obvious.

There is much that we can, and perhaps should, debate about how Virginia’s schools are run. As a student of history, I merely point out a historical irony: It was Republicans in 1870 who created Virginia’s public school system and Republicans in 1969 who tried to mandate that those schools be well-funded. So why is it a Republican in 2023 who now wants to see them made optional? 

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at