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A "Functioning" School System?


I’ve been involved in education policy in Virginia for more than three decades. And I have never heard an elected official (at least a Democratic elected official) utter anything about education as ridiculous as the comments today by Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen and first reported by Blue Virginia.

You might recall that Chap has recently filed a lawsuit challenging the Governor’s executive orders to close down businesses in Virginia as unconstitutional. But in his appearance on the radio show, he went further, charging that closing the schools was also unconstitutional.


In arguing for the need for schools to reopen, Chap made an unfathomable comment: “All the people that we talked about, Jim Crow, Massive Resistance, all those people. Look, there were some bad decisions made. But at least they had a school system. OK? At least they had a functioning school system.”


A “functioning” school system? When in 1924, the General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, barring Native Americans from attending white schools?

A “functioning” school system? When in 1936, the General Assembly passed the Dovell Act, awarding scholarships for African American students to go to college . . . outside of Virginia?

A “functioning” school system? When generations of African Americans were required by law to attend schools that were separate, but far from equal?

A “functioning” school system? When in the 1950s, U.S. Senator Byrd encouraged "massive resistance" to school desegregation and supported the passage of laws to “prevent a single Negro child from entering any white school”?

A “functioning” school system? When Prince Edward County closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964 rather than desegregate?

Let’s be clear. For far too long, Virginia’s idea of a “functioning” school system was one that functioned for some children, but not all. That’s something that all of us in Virginia need to come to terms with. We will not make any progress if we simply ignore the painful and inexcusable history of our Commonwealth on education issues.

We are engaged in a series of very difficult conversations in our country. One of those conversations needs to be how we educate all kids – every single one – to be prepared for the world and the economy they are now facing. We need to talk openly and honestly about the achievement gap for black and brown students in our schools. And our elected officials have a special responsibility to contribute constructively to that conversation. Here’s one hint: white elected officials really cannot open up dialogue after uttering a sentence that begins, “Well, at least during slavery/Reconstruction/Jim Crow/Massive Resistance . . .”

Yes, we need to get schools open again. Yes, we need to ask why one of the best school systems in the country could not make online learning work. Yes, we need to figure out why, even if that had occurred, thousands of students would not have been able to attend "class" because they lacked either computers or broadband. And yes, we desperately need to make sure that the kids who fell the farthest behind this school year get extra help in the next. I’d be happy if that started . . . oh, I don’t know, maybe tomorrow.

But Chap should know better. He’s bright enough to know the tortured history of education in the Commonwealth. He’s been a Virginian all his life, and he’s represented Virginians in Richmond off and on for the better part of two decades. He needs to apologize.

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