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OPINION: A Challenge in 2020 

A 60-day Coliseum cease-fire is needed so Richmond leaders don’t repeat all the same mistakes a half-century later.

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Scott Elmquist/File

Two things happened in 1971. Richmond got a new Coliseum and Virginia got a new education clause in a modernized constitution. Coliseum mavens convinced residents their new shiny facility would do wonders for the city. The constitution drafters convinced state residents their education clause meant equal educational opportunities for all Virginia’s children.

Neither promise turned out to be true. The results have been devastating particularly for Richmond Public School students, who are 90% minority and mostly from families with modest incomes. The business and political leaders suffered nothing for being wrong on the Coliseum.

Nearly 50 years later, our leaders have a chance to redeem themselves.

Unfortunately, the City Hall debate over a new coliseum seems best described as “Groundhog Day” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” During their 2016 campaigns, the mayor and City Council members all promised to avoid repeating former Mayor Dwight Jones’ mistake: defining their term by a racialized, intellectually corrupted debate over a big, shiny free-lunch sports arena.

Yet sadly, by 2017, the current coliseum debate began publicly building. Council recently agreed to spend nearly $200,000 for yet another consultant report reviewing the Stoney-Farrell coliseum proposal. The analysis isn’t due until February at the earliest.

In all honesty, I never imagined the current elected leaders could put the Jones era to shame. Let me publicly apologize for underestimating them.

The Stoney-Farrell faction on council claims its real interest is to fix schools: A 100% publicly financed coliseum, they insist, is merely a necessary means to that end. The opposition on council likewise claims its real interest is fixing the schools. It counters by saying the coliseum will be a drain, not a reservoir, for education money.

Time for some tough love: Both factions are pitching the same old, same old. The proof? Easy. The 2017 School Modernization Referendum received 85% support from voters, despite the mayor and council’s opposition. But when a unanimous General Assembly enacted the referendum into law, Stoney and council vowed to change.

They didn’t.

The mayor eventually announced a citywide school building modernization plan he claimed met the referendum’s legal requirement. Council rubber-stamped Stoney’s baloney 9-0. The Stoney-council plan is a political farce almost sure to leave most poor minority students in worse facilities until 2040 or later. 

Enough already. Having obsessed over the endless coliseum debate now well into year three, it is time for Dominion Chief Tom Farrell, Stoney, and his likely main 2020 challenger, Councilwoman Kim Gray — along with their backers — to up their game.  

“Education is the great equalizer,” declared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But when Virginia’s politicians drafted the 1971 constitution, the old guard opposed King’s dream. Contrary to what residents since have been led to believe, the Virginia Constitution doesn’t commit our state to equal educational opportunity. Article VIII, Section 1 — the education clause — is deceptively nuanced to allow our state politicians to campaign as champions of such equality knowing they cannot be held legally accountable for failing. The pertinent part of the article reads: 

“The General Assembly shall provide for a system of public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age … and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” [emphasis mine]

To the casual observer, the phrase seek to ensure suggests a state educational duty equally applicable across Virginia. But lawmakers had intentionally created a ruse. The phrase seek to ensure creates only an aspirational goal, not a legal duty.

What’s the difference? If the state had an obligation to provide equal educational opportunities, then any failure traced to state policy could be challenged in court. But Virginia’s Constitution creates no such duty. Lacking a legal right to enforce, the constitution leaves innocent kids at the mercy of insincere politicians. The Virginia Supreme Court reluctantly agreed in Scott v. Commonwealth in 1994.

Gov. Ralph Northam recently appointed a commission to advise him on state laws including educational statutes seemingly benign but instead creating unfair discrimination. The commission weirdly chose to focus on discriminatory education statutes no longer enforced. It vaguely promised to look at the constitution — the source of all laws — sometime in the future.  

But the future is now.   

Accordingly, I propose a 60-day coliseum cease-fire: Instead of more confrontation, I offer cooperation. Farrell, Gray and Stoney should put aside differences on fixing the 1971 Coliseum and instead work together to fix the 1971 education clause.

This constitutional imperative, if properly presented, will pass with large bipartisan majorities. As shown by the 2018 hearings of the Senate School Modernization Subcommittee, Democratic urban communities and rural Republican counties face similar equal-education opportunity challenges. If our leaders stay the course, the historic educational policy change could take effect as early as 2022. 

We can’t give up on King’s dream. Stoney, Gray and Farrell will get credit for putting aside differences to begin bringing Virginia educational policy into the 21st century. Admittedly, the endless coliseum debate will pick up at the same place after the cease-fire ends. But unlike 1971, we’d be guaranteed to get at least one thing right.  

Paul Goldman is the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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