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Editorial: Why aren't rural localities demanding an end to school disparity?

Editorial: Why aren't rural localities demanding an end to school disparity?

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A year ago, rural Virginia was aflame with large crowds showing up at their local board of supervisors, demanding their county pass a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution.

Virtually all did.

Did any of it make a difference? No. At least not yet.

The impetus was the November 2019 elections that produced a Democratic majority in both chambers of the General Assembly — a Democratic majority that vowed to pass various gun laws that Second Amendment sanctuary advocates considered anathema.

The General Assembly passed almost all of them — only a ban on assault weapons failed to pass.

If there was any effect in the 2020 elections, it was hard to measure — Democrats increased their margins in the cities and suburbs, Republicans increased theirs in rural areas, although that generally was true across the country.

We can’t make a definitive statement about any voter backlash until we know the outcome of the November 2021 elections for governor and the House of Delegates — or the 2023 elections where the state Senate elected last year will be up for reelection. However, there are virtually no Democratic legislators from rural Virginia for gun rights advocates to take out their electoral wrath on. If gun rights advocates want to punish Democrats, they’ll have to do it in the suburbs — where support for such measures was the weakest, and where Democrats have been making steady gains in the past few election cycles. In other words, gun rights advocates will have to reverse some pretty big trends.

Until we see that happen, we can only conclude that so far the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement was Shakespearean in proportion. Unfortunately for gun rights advocates, the Shakespeare in question is from “Macbeth” — “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This, though, isn’t about gun laws. It’s about school funding. With gun laws, we saw rural communities get impassioned — even outraged — about what they considered an infringement of their rights. Why are such communities not equally impassioned — and outraged — about the funding disparities between their schools and those in the state’s most affluent areas?

The prospect of new gun laws was a potential threat — while school disparities were, and still are, an ongoing condition. Generally, humans are slow to react to potential problems and are much quicker to react to problems that already have manifested. So why the reverse there?

We could theorize lots of reasons — guns provoke a more emotional response, either pro or con, than some abstract funding formula. The reality is that the state’s disparities in school funding have been going on for so long that many people in rural Virginia don’t realize how much their students are being shortchanged.

Once again, let’s trot out the same old numbers we always refer to. In Arlington, $20,699 is spent on each student. In Falls Church, the figure is $20,484 per student. Meanwhile, in Norton, $9,783 is spent on each student, and in Tazewell County, the figure is $9,616. Put another way, there are localities in Northern Virginia that are spend more than twice as much on each student’s education as in some localities in Southwest Virginia. We could pick other localities that aren’t quite at such extremes but still pretty close. Alexandria spends $18,529 per student, Appomattox County spends $10,482, Amelia County $10,264 — and Wise County $10,014.

Yes, we know money doesn’t always equate to a better education, so we’re not going to say students in Northern Virginia are getting an education that’s twice as good as the one that students in Southside and Southwest get. But money does pay for things — better facilities and better technology, for instance. It’s why Lee County schools are teaching cybersecurity on an electrical system that shorts out, while Loudoun County can immerse its students in state-of-the-art technology starting with coding classes in kindergarten. If anyone from Northern Virginia wishes to dispute their students are getting advantages rural students aren’t, then we invite them to cut their school funding in half.

This disparity is baked into Virginia’s fundamental law. The Virginia Constitution says that the legislature “shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and maintained” — but the state Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that “shall seek to” language was merely an aspiration, not a mandate.

Democrats controlled the legislature then; they could have fixed that. Instead, Democratic leaders squashed a proposed revision. Republicans controlled the legislature for about two decades after that. They could have fixed it. They did not.

Now Democrats control the legislature again and do we see any desire to deal with this? None at all. What we have here is a bipartisan agreement to maintain school disparity.

We must point out, for the umpteenth time, that the main advocate for fixing the funding disparities between the rural and suburban schools is a rural Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and that all the Democrats who profess to be champions of education have been strangely silent.

Can you blame legislators, though? Why should they do anything? There’s no apparent public outrage. We don’t see crowds of people showing up at local governing bodies to vent their disapproval, as we did with the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement (not that all those resolutions really made a difference). We don’t see the business community exerting its considerable influence, the way we do on so many other issues (and that often does make a difference). Politicians notice these things. Fixing school disparity is a “heavy lift,” as they say, for both parties. Spending more money for anything goes against the Republican grain. Democrats aren’t so concerned about spending money but, realistically, this additional spending is going to come out of their constituents’ hides in Northern Virginia — and go to communities in rural Virginia that are, to paraphrase the great philosopher Taylor Swift, never ever getting back with Democrats again.

Nonetheless we must ask: Democrats are all for social justice; why isn’t school disparity one of their issues? Republicans represent rural Virginia; why aren’t they standing up for their constituents?

Another General Assembly session is coming up. Will anything change? We suspect not. Or, as Macbeth said, “this is a sorry sight.”

The Roanoke Times

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