Around the Commonwealth, school children learn in vastly different settings. Typically, people may believe that the burgeoning metropolitan areas have left the sparsely-populated counties behind when it comes to modern education infrastructure. That, however, is not the case.
In Northern Virginia, students are taught in high-tech estates, positioning themselves in the top tier of schools across America. For instance, Loudoun County offers computer science classes to kindergartners, and students in Arlington County’s high schools have more than just swimming pools, they have multi-pool “aquatic centers.” Meanwhile, students in Richmond have their hands over their heads to keep from being hit by pieces of falling ceiling, and students in Lee County are surrounded by buckets catching water dripping through the roof when it rains.
Therefore, the problems with infrastructure modernization are not relegated to the rural areas. School children in both immensely rural areas and the inner cities must learn in a decaying, antiquated atmosphere.
In the capital city, schools are even more aged than those dotting Lee and Halifax counties in Southwest Virginia – Richmond even has seven schools that pre-date the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. To combat this, officials in the city are touting an $800 million plan to modernize infrastructure. Although the plan has a price tag, it is a price that local government may not be able to pay without continuing to raise taxes.
Although the sentiment in Richmond is one that hangs on gross under-maintenance, the tale is similar around the state. In 2013, then-Governor Bob McDonnell commissioned an inventory of the Commonwealth’s houses of education. In a completely hair-raising assessment, modernizing just the schools that were more than 30 years old would cost $18 billion – that’s billion with a “b.”
Whether one is from the hustle and bustle of the Commonwealth’s skyscraper-lined cities, or the rolling hills of Virginia’s vast farmland, all can agree that modernizing schools and rectifying decades worth of under-maintenance should be near the top of the agenda. This is where the newly-dubbed political “odd couple” of Virginia politics comes into play.
Days ago, Republican Delegate Bill Stanley (Franklin) and Paul Goldman, former head of the Democratic Party of Virginia, traversed the deep political divide to pen a cooperative piece published in The Roanoke Times to call for both parties in the state legislature and all those across the Old Dominion to come together in unison to address the situation surrounding school modernization.
“We write today,” Stanley and Goldman asserted, “to ask for your help in forming a historic educational coalition between rural Republican communities and metropolitan Democratic neighborhoods.” They added that their message is “not to assign blame: rather to provide hope.”
“Historically speaking, the Commonwealth took a wrong turn on the path toward modernized, properly maintained facilities back in 1955. Small-minded political leaders refused to comply with the school facilities policy in the famed Brown v. Board of Education II decision,” they political heavyweights wrote.
The year following the first round of rulings on desegregating American schools, the Supreme Court handed down another judgement ordering states to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed,” after many states refused. Furthermore, it was instituted that all students, regardless of race, had the right to equal educational facility opportunities.
However, rampant political dysfunction in areas has led to years of woeful upkeep of school facilities in regions that are not graced with the surplus budgets of Northern Virginia and other more wealthier areas of the Commonwealth.
“This has now boomeranged on children in rural, suburban and urban areas,” the duo wrote. “Virginia Tech experts, world renown in this area, have proven statistically that decrepit, aging school facilities badly hurt student learning, a burden carried for life. This impact has not only hurt families, but also has been devastating to whole communities.”
The crumbling state of many schools exudes an atmosphere of disappointment, uncertainty, and a lack of respect for the future of school children. This uncertainty in the facade of buildings can lead to a feeling of uncertainty for the future of a child who will not receive a proper education – leading them down a less then optimal path.
“While the state has issued billions of dollars in bonds for college and highway infrastructure, it has NEVER issued any state bonds to partner with localities to modernize our crumbling K-12 infrastructure. The average Virginian for the foreseeable future will not graduate from a four-year university. Thus, local education is the fundamental shaper of values and job skills,” the two wrote.
Both Goldman and Stewart are now banking on a recent Supreme Court ruling that will help Virginia collect taxes it has been missing out on in the digital marketplace age. Many states, not just Virginia, have fallen behind the times as technology has moved a lot of shopping online. Considering there is no sales tax paid in online purchases where businesses have no physical brick-and-mortar stores, states are losing out of billions of dollars of revenue, annually.
In South Dakota v. Wayfair (2018), the Court, in a 5-4 ruling, overturned previous cases wherein the “physical presence” notion of the Commerce Clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution was the guiding basis on which cases were ruled involving state-mandated sales tax. States can now pass laws requiring sellers without a physical presence in the state to collect the state’s sales tax from customers and send it to the state. Considering Amazon has a fast-growing presence throughout the Commonwealth, “Wayfair offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the Commonwealth back on the path of choosing modern, properly maintained local school facilities over superhighways,” the two said.
“Experts believe the Wayfair decision could result in a windfall of $250-$300 million in annual revenue to the commonwealth,” they wrote. Though, five years ago, the state legislature passed a contingent that made it clear that, if at any point in the future, Congress passed a law allowing Virginia to collect internet sales taxes, “the bulk of it should go to road building.”
While the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) could use the money on any number of roadway projects that have lacked adequate funding, the situation surrounding the state’s school facilities is much more dire.
After all, the average school building age throughout Virginia, which was 25 years in the early 1990s, is now upwards of 46 years.
Stanley and Goldman responded to the infrastructure-centric legislation saying: “This is the most anti-education funding legislation since segregation.”
Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Fortunately, because…a court decision, not Congressional action, changed the law, the 2013 legislation doesn’t apply. It will now fall on the 2019 General Assembly to allocate the funds,” they wrote.
On August 16, the State Senate Subcommittee on School Facility Modernization, of which Stanley is the chairman, met with local educational officials from western and Southside Virginia to hear from Virginia Tech experts about school modernization. Stanley proposed doing just what Goldman and he talked about – “support[ing] a historic, unprecedented local school facilities bond proposal. Allocating roughly half of this new revenue stream to bond financing.”
This measure, according to both men, “would immediately generate at least $2 billion and perhaps $3 billions of dollars for K-12 facility modernization and maintenance.” They added that “This would not only be the first such effort in Virginia: on a per capita basis, it would be bigger than California’s recent effort, considered the biggest in American history!”
Half of the remaining value would be left for other state needs, like mending roadways, railway, bridges, and other infrastructure projects.
The best part one may ask: “we can achieve this record proposal without raising taxes!” they exclaim.
As Stanley and Goldman endeavor on this unprecedented crusade in Virginia politics, the fact that a life-long Republican and a life-long Democrat are coming together in such a politically divisive time should show anyone the high stakes of the situation surrounding school buildings in the Commonwealth.
Lastly, they wrote: “Let’s be honest: If we are unable to put aside partisanship and regional differences to unite behind this once-in-a-lifetime political opportunity, then what is the chance of ever doing more?”