The 148-Year Fight to Fund Virginia’s Public Schools

The debate over allocation of local funds to build a new Harrisonburg High School to solve overcrowding, or to fix Fulks Run Elementary School may be new, but the fight over school funding in the Commonwealth has been ongoing since our schools were founded in 1869.

Virginia schools were created to improve the state’s literacy rate and to educate black Virginians (almost half of all Virginians were illiterate at that time). Freedmen and poor whites generally favored public schools, but wealthier Virginians were less than enthusiastic, and prioritized repayment of pre-war debts over funding schools.

The State Convention in Richmond, 1868. Twenty-four of the delegates were African Americans.

Virginia Governor Frederick Holliday, a former Confederate colonel, vetoed a bill that would have required school taxes be devoted exclusively to funding public schools, stating, “Public free schools are not a necessity… They are a luxury… to be paid for, like any other luxury, by the people who wish their benefits.” In 1879 Virginia General Assembly made drastic cuts to the public education budget, shutting down half the schools in the state.

The Readjusters, a populist party with roots in the Shenandoah Valley, came together across the racial divide to oppose the Holliday agenda. The Readjusters restored education funding, repealed the racist poll tax, and controlled Virginia’s General Assembly and governor’s mansion (until a resurgent white supremacy erased many of the gains of the Reconstruction).

An 1882 flyer about public school unding produced by the Readjuster Party (source)

By the close of the 19th century, Virginia’s public schools had earned broad biracial support, but under Jim Crow, they remained segregated until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education. State Delegate James M. Thomson and US Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. fought desegregation for many years after Brown by taking control of local school board decisions, and closing some schools altogether.

Decades of struggle and court decisions against segregation finally brought an end to Massive Resistance — a hundred years after Virginia’s public schools were created. The concept of charter schools was born shortly thereafter, and the fight for public school funding in Virginia continues today.

During the 2008–09 recession, General Assembly made budget cuts to education. Virginia’s funding per-student dropped by 16 percent between the 2008–09 and the 2013–14 school year (adjusted for inflation). As the economy has been recovering, our elected representatives in Richmond have not restored that funding.

Source: The Commonwealth Institute (link)

The threat to public education is real, and it’s local. Groups like Americans for Prosperity are working to revive an old Holliday-esque agenda in school districts across the country. Several property owners in Harrisonburg recently formed a PAC called “Students Over Structures” (SOS) to oppose spending “too much” to alleviate overcrowding at HHS. SOS has sent mailers and erected red signs throughout the city.

A “Students Over Structures” yard sign in Harrisonburg

We didn’t see this sort of organized, well-funded opposition to school construction several years ago, when Harrisonburg and Rockingham County built five new schools. That could have something to do with state budget cuts to education during the recession that haven’t been restored as our economy has improved. Or rising property values and school construction costs. Or it might be due in part to opinions some hold about our changing demographics. HHS is ranked among the most diverse schools in the state — between 2010 and 2013, the city’s Hispanic population grew by 18.2 percent.

We need champions for Virginia’s working families in Richmond again to fight as the Readjusters did for strong schools that support thriving local communities. I’m running for delegate in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to do just that.

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