by Les Schreiber
James E. Ryan has written an excellent history of efforts to upgrade and improve educational opportunities for all Americans. In “Five Miles Away, a World Apart,” he examines the political and legal fights through the prism of two Richmond area high schools — Thomas Jefferson in Richmond city and Douglas Freeman a few miles down Monument Avenue in Henrico County. For Mr. Ryan, that short drive is demonstrative of the lack of true educational opportunity in America.
I come to his work with a real world perspective. A 1964 graduate of Thomas Jefferson, I returned to the building in 1992 to teach at the Governor’s School which at that time shared space with the comprehensive high school. During 2001-2002, I taught economics at Freeman in the Leadership Center before returning to the then Maggie Walker Governor’s School until my recent retirement.
Before the famous Brown decision all public school in Virginia were segregated by law. In Richmond city there were three white high schools — Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe and John Marshall — and two for African-Americans, Maggie Walker and Armstrong High. Following the Brown decision, the Byrd political machine spent years on a strategy of “massive resistance” to avoid the application of the Supreme Court Decision. Mr. Ryan thoroughly discusses all of these strategies , including the creation of the Pupil Placement Board and the closing of public schools in several districts. These actions demonstrated the need for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The first African-American was not admitted to Thomas Jefferson until the fall of 1962. Daisy Cooper was a quiet young woman who lived that year in total isolation. Although she had been a member of the National Honor Society, she was denied admission to this organization at T.J. The following year, about 20 African-American students entered T.J. Some had more outgoing personalities and social barriers and isolation were beginning to break down. T.J. was not totally integrated. Even if all had had the best intentions, housing patterns in Richmond would have kept most school segregated.
Richmond was not alone in having the courts attempt to integrate a school system. In a significant case, Swann vs Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, not only did the Circuit Court order busing, but made sure that suburban schools were part of the busing program. This program did experience some significant success as the inner city and suburban schools were part of the same legal entity. This is not the case in Virginia.
Judge Robert H. Merhige inherited the Bradley vs Richmond School Board Case when he ascended the Bench. This case originally involved the Pupil Placement Board’s decision to refuse 11 African-American students to transfer to white schools. At this point Judge Merhige went beyond busing within the city by attempting to combine Richmond City Schools with those of the surrounding counties of Henrico and Chesterfield. On appeal, the Appellate Court for the Fourth Circuit stayed Merhige’s order for consolidation. Upon further appeal, the Supreme Court, with former Richmond School Board member Lewis Powell abstaining , voted 4 to 4, allowing the Appeals Court decision to stand, thus eliminating cross-boundary busing.
In a series of cases discussed by Ryan, the courts can not find a fundamental right to an education, much less a right to an equal one. The educational inequities caused by the system of funding schools based on a property tax are simply too complex and beyond the scope of issues to be considered by the Court. In 1972, the Nixon Administration introduced the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. In effect, the Act solidified current school boundaries while increasing funding for needy schools.
Ryan discusses the funding issue and finds it wanting as a solution. Richmond spends more per student than does Henrico, although money can remove some inequities, the correlation between dollars and academic achievement is not high.
Testing, SOL’s, are not particularly effective ways to improve education. It is in no stakeholders’ interest to have large numbers of children fail, especially politicians. A large number of failures might bring calls for more spending and thus higher taxes. Therefore, SOL’s have become merely a test of minimum competency.
Ryan’s core belief is that academic achievement can best be achieved by cross-district busing, to introduce inner-city children to the culture of high academic expectations and educational achievement that exist in a successful suburban schools such as Douglas Freeman. Citing many case studies, he demonstrates that socioeconomic integration aids poor children while having no noticeable effects on the academic achievement of their wealthier peers.
By the early 1990′s, Thomas Jefferson was a sparsely attended high school with a minority student body located in one of the more affluent areas of Richmond. Daniel Duke’s history of T.J. entitled “The School that Refused to Die” chronicles efforts to keep the school afloat. That effort consisted of phasing-out the comprehensive high school and replacing it with a magnet program focusing on Government and International Studies. That program had some success and was seen by many as the key to maintaining the city’s only high school in the West End.
In the Spring of 1990, Richmond began negotiating with the State Department of Education for a Regional Governor’s school at the T.J. site. The Richmond Superintendent, Albert Jones, indicated that initially, 100 freshman would be enrolled and then another 200 would participate in programs at the Governor’s School. School Board minutes quotes Jones as stating “students currently attending T.J. will continue to do so … and that the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades will be offered a comprehensive educational curriculum.” Soon after this, Jones was dismissed.
The Governor’s School opened at T.J. in the Fall of 1991 with 70 freshmen. The following 3 years saw extensive political maneuvering with Richmond Superintendent Lucille Brown appearing indecisive about the schools. The issue was not put to rest until March 1994 when State Superintendent of Education Bill Boscher issued a set of guidelines under which the state would continue to fund the Governor’s School and the comprehensive high school thus assuring the survival of the magnet high school.
As this drama played out, the schools did co-exist. Several Governor’s School students played on T.J.’s basketball and football teams, and many took part in the highly successful track and field program. A group of T.J. alumni were beginning to form a campaign in the early 1990′s to upgrade and expand the facility by tapping into the 25,000 T.J. alumni that reside in Richmond.
Following Boucher’s one-building solution in 1994, stresses began to develop. Some connected with the Governor’s School insisted that it needed its own “identity” which necessitated a new building. Others believed that recruitment was stymied because suburban parents wouldn’t send their kids “downtown.” This was total rubbish, as applications rose as the years passed. A change also took place in the political leadership.
Henrico County, although a regional sponsor of the Governor’s School, preferred to send its best students to specialty centers rather than the regional magnet school. One of these was the leadership center at Douglas Freeman.
The Leadership Center, with emphasis on International Relations and Economics, was a program-within-a-school. Freeman is a high-performing suburban high school with social stratification that would make the basis for a good Jane Austen novel. There were certainly no barriers to entrance to students from other schools in Henrico County, but it remained very “West End.” Of the 66 students I taught in Economics classes, there was only one African-American. Even though the program did try, it seems that the socio-economic barriers Ryan talks about are not easy to overcome.
As Henrico County and the City of Richmond seemed to retreat into the background of management of the Governor’s School, Chesterfield County assumed a disproportionate role. Chesterfield County, on Richmond’s Southern border, is considered very politically conservative. The pressure to move from the T.J. building intensified.
In 1999, the faculty of the Governor’s School was required to resign as employees of Richmond Public Schools and become employees of the Governor’s School. This created, in effect, a tiny school system without a tax base.
Even with the potential for fund-raising from the alumni of T.J. and a stated-goal in the original mission statement of “offering out-reach programs for other students designed to strengthen their achievement in government and international studies….” no serious consideration was given to staying in the T.J. building, sharing updated facilities, and offering a few course offerings for T.J. Becoming independent and moving to another building would deprive the Governor’s School of a broad range of economies of scale including such things as building maintenance, all types of health insurance, IT, and food service. The belief was: Move or die.
A building was found. It was a relic of segregation: the Maggie Walker Building in downtown Richmond. A fund-raising plan was instituted involving contributions by participating districts, sale of historic tax credits, limited partnerships, and private fund raising. The fundraising was led by a Republican political operative from Chesterfield with zero prior private fundraising experience. All parts of the plan worked except the private fundraising. Several years after the school moved into its Maggie Walker location, it was in the absurd position of being liable for property taxes to the City of Richmond, on behalf of the limited partnership that still owned the building and having the participating districts paying more to cover these taxes and the remaining existing debt. All of this could have been avoided if the leadership had been motivated to work out a sustainable solution at 4100 West Grace Street.
The Governor’s School program would have been ongoing with the added benefit of aiding the students at Thomas Jefferson. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban used to say about the Palestinians, “They miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The same applies to much of the political and educational leadership in central Virginia.