August 22, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


The Real Problem With Our Schools 


Thomas Jefferson never could have seen it coming.

With his strict division between Virginia's cities and counties, he intended to preserve the bucolic, agrarian society he loved -- not cause a train wreck.

He meant to preserve counties,  not to choke off and strangle landlocked cities, sending their affluent citizens just beyond the city lines to build prosperous, urbanized counties and take tax revenue with them

Had Jefferson observed the conditions of inner-city Richmond and its floundering schools, social services and public transportation, he might have been inspired to write a letter of declaration calling for change.

Would he have demanded an appointed school board rather than an elected one, as was the urgent call to action in a letter sent to the mayor and City Council Aug. 3 by a group of the region's business leaders?

Or would he have gone further?

The 26 business leaders in question refer to themselves as representing "a significant majority of the largest employers in the Metro Richmond area."  They have every right to express their outrage, suggests John Moeser, a visiting fellow at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. They're also in a strong position to call for a real solution, he says.

But that's not what happened, says Moeser, a frequent adviser to state and local government, including a previous association with the Wilder administration. Instead, he says, the group presented a proposal that was "bizarre" and "naïve."

"If they're concerned with public schools, they ought to be focusing on the major challenges that the schools face, that is, the concentration of poverty," Moeser says. "Any school district, anyplace in the United States with the demographics that characterize Richmond Public Schools is going to have these enormous challenges."

Among arguments cited in the letter to abandon the elected school board in favor of appointed boards is concern about the politicization of a body that lacks true accountability for its actions and spending.

Concern about politicization certainly is valid, Moeser says, but the politicization observed by the letter signers is not occurring from within the School Board.

"I think what really is unfortunate is the current School Board — which I think is a pretty good school board — is a constant target of abuse," Moeser says. "They are criticized [by administration] for not dealing, that they have not improved the schools, but as long as the city has … such a high concentration of low-income people — until that is addressed — any school board, including this one, is going to find it difficult."

Creating dialogue is good, he says, referring to the insistence of business leaders that their letter was meant to create discussion, not to take away voter rights. But better would be to create a dialogue about the correct topic.

Which brings us back to Jefferson's separation of cities and counties, and a recurring word in citizen debates, visioning sessions, leadership roundtables and business-development circles: regionalism.

"The kind of regionalism that we have, while important, is not what I would call substantive regionalism," Moeser says, noting the irony of the letter.  "What does the business community always talk about? They talk about how we need stronger regionalism."

Talk of regionalism is well and good, says one of the men who signed the letter, Robert Grey, a partner at Hunton & Williams. But, he says: "We, as members of the community, are trying to deal with the hand that we have been dealt. I think we can all find ways to dodge the issue and say, well, if only we can do this, or only if we had regional government, and then we can solve the problem."

The Richmond region has proven adept at dodging this issue of regional cooperation. Currently, Richmond-region cooperative efforts in schools are limited.

The Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies, located at North Lombardy and Leigh streets, accepts a limited number of advanced students from 11 surrounding localities.

Plans for other regional governor's schools are in the works, but are still in the discussion phase.  A School Board plan for a regional technology school is likely to run afoul of Wilder's competing charter school plan for regional technology as well as math schools proposed by the Wilder administration.

In other governmental service areas, such as public transportation, regionalism is equally retarded by county lines and economic divisions. Perhaps the biggest example — at least in terms of square feet — of regional government cooperation in Richmond is the less-than-booming Greater Richmond Convention Center.

"The division between cities and counties and the distribution of resources is a … regularly discussed issue in political circles," says Sean O'Brien, director of Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

O'Brien laments that it was his university's founder who promoted the principle of separating agrarian societies from urban centers, a principle that informed Virginia's current destabilizing political division between cities and neighboring urbanized counties.

The 1970 state law that ended the ability of Virginia cities to annex from counties is due soon for reauthorization, he says. It's a perfect time to renew the debate over regional cooperation, he says — and perhaps consider Jefferson's city/county division.

Not all the letter's signers are averse to this broader re-evaluation. "The Jeffersonian system ... at another time may have been — and in the future may be — a useful principle in this region," says John B. Adams Jr., chairman and CEO of the Martin Agency.  "But when you see this kind of disparity, to me, it would suggest we need to look at this in the light of the issues we face today.

"My personal belief is that it is absolutely the case that we are starving for more regional cooperation on this issue and a number of other issues," he says, though he insists that re-examining Richmond's elected School Board is a valid first step. "Whether it's a structural change or a financial or a public funding change, I don't know. But it seems painfully clear to me that we do not have the level of regional cooperation that we need."

Regionalism is also on the mind of Gov. Tim Kaine. In July of last year, he created an Urban Policy Task Force to look at the economic plight of Virginia's city centers. Its recently released first report cites concern about disparities between cities and the urban counties that benefit from their centralizing presence.

"To date, Virginia has not had a comprehensive, articulated urban policy," the report says. It even provides data showing the clear links between the poverty of city centers like Richmond — where students rely on free and reduced lunch benefits — and their Standards of Learning pass rates.

The poorest students' pass rates are not even 60 percent, compared to those of the most economically advantaged students — most living in urbanized county suburbs — which are more than 85 percent.

In Richmond 84 percent of the city's 51 schools have more than half their students on free or reduced lunch, according to statistics compiled by Don Cowles, executive director of Richmond-based Initiatives of Change, an international organization that is the parent organization to Richmond-based program Hope in the Cities. In some schools, more than 85 percent of students are dependent on the program.

That compares with Chesterfield and Henrico counties, where only 18 percent of schools have more than half their population on free or reduced lunches.

Federal studies show that school systems with more than 50 percent of students reliant on free lunch programs simply do not succeed, Cowles says. Considering the overwhelming number of city schools that face such a scenario, he says, "the city can't address it alone."

Other statistics paint similarly grim pictures. In some city neighborhoods, unemployment rates are at 60 percent, says the Rev. Benjamin Campbell, pastoral director of the ecumenical retreat center Richmond Hill, whose letter to the editor of The Times-Dispatch critical of the business leaders' letter had yet to be published.

"The primary problem is not administrative waste, nor is it excess facility capacity, nor is it the fact that we have an elected school board," Campbell writes, blaming instead the segregation of the region's "neediest children into a single school system."

He criticizes the letter's unproductive swipe at elected officials, but says the letter writers were right on one account: The prosperity of the region depends as much on the city as on the urban counties surrounding it. Or as the authors of the Urban Policy Task Force report wrote so eloquently: "The wellbeing of the Commonwealth is only as strong as that of its most distressed community."

Overall well-being of that community is key, says Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, president of the Richmond Council of PTAs. This is something that changing School Board members won't fix.

"Is that going to improve our health department?" Pinkney-Eppes asks, alluding to the letter's own criticism of lagging social services in Richmond. "Is the school system going to cross over into social services? That's a fundamental thing that we've got to go back to, we've got to go back to where they live."

Where they live, where they work, where they receive services, says Donna Browder Evans, a retired university professor and researcher who specializes in the plight of urban schools.

"My contention is that the demands of schooling in the urban areas requires a much more comprehensive approach to looking at the underlying factors," says Evans, a former Old Dominion University professor who retired as a dean at Ohio State University in 2005. She suggests that blaming Richmond's school problems on the city's form of government is "very simplistic."

"I don't think it makes one whit of difference whether the School Board is elected or appointed," she says. "How will that change those numbers? I think we're really going over the same old ground in the restructuring of education."

Indeed, as the Sorensen Institute's O'Brien notes, voters in Charlottesville, fed up with the miserable performance of their appointed school board, recently went to the polls to change to an elected board. In that city,  SOL pass rates lag behind Richmond's in all categories by nearly 10 percent or more.

Among neighboring localities, only Hanover County has an appointed school board. That board functions in much the same fashion as an elected school board, especially in the critical area of budget.

Operating nearly identically to systems with elected school boards, like Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond, Hanover's school administrative staff develops a budgetthat is then presented to the School Board for approval. That board then forwards its requests to the Board of Supervisors, which approves the budget request with very minimal control over line-item spending.

Individual supervisors who attempt to meddle in particular line items by talking with their School Board representatives could even cross the lines of separation between the boards, a potential violation of state law.

"The Constitution of Virginia gives school boards a fair level of autonomy no matter how they get [selected]," says Robert Setliff, chairman of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors. "We work with them, but … they prepare a budget, and it's negotiated through our own administration and their administration to what we think is acceptable."

Setliff says there are advantages to Hanover's appointed School Board, and they mirror those outlined by the business leaders' letter.  "In the end, we're the ones who approve the budget for our school system. We have the responsibility to assure that they're properly funded. If you don't have the taxing authority, where is the responsibility?"

And what of the politics, he wonders: "If people have agendas, they can use the fact that they can propose things they can't fund through their own methods."

Setliff sees little value to regionalism. "There's no magic in … regionalism," he says, calling Richmond's problems "none of our business. I don't see where that helps a school by combining a school district."

That sort of unwillingness to fully examine the possibilities or to consider the realities dooms to failure piecemeal efforts like changing governmental forms, says Evans.

"If we think of how our country was founded in bold risk-taking, I don't think we're doing one thing to improve our schools," Evans says. "I don't think we get anywhere by moving the chairs around the deck of the Titanic. That's what this sounds like.

"Unless you take a look at the population of kids coming to schools and what's going on in their lives, it's not going to make a bit of difference."

The urban education problem is an equation that can be solved only by factoring in all the variables, which include housing, schools, social services, health care and public transportation.

A good start also might truly be knocking down the invisible walls created by the borders that separate Richmond from its neighbors in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, says Rebecca D. Kneedler, an associate dean at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

Kneedler calls Virginia's separation of cities from counties "the handicap of our urban system — we're the only state in the union where the city is isolated and that really has been the deterioration of the urban schools."

Richmond and other urban Virginia localities are most similar to D.C., in that they share a "chronic and fatal flaw" Kneedler says: "They have no way to partner with the suburban arena."

Some local leaders have compared Wilder's ambitions to those of Adrian Fenty, who was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., this past May and unveiled the District of Columbia Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 the day he took office.

Not long afterward, Washington, D.C., joined New York City and Chicago and six or so other cities whose mayors took over direct control of schools from city school boards.

Fenty's intervention is too recent to be judged a success or failure, says Kneedler, who sees the call for appointed school boards as unnecessary. If Richmond is serious about success, she says, it's worth looking south beyond the state line, to the successes of a regional partnership between the city of Charlotte and neighboring Mecklenburg County in North Carolina.

"It can lift everybody up to have these partnerships in economically diverse communities," she says. "It's not to say they don't have problems, but what they have is a significant mix of affluence with poverty.  You've got this viable system that has the investment of the whole community in it."

Rather than looking north to Washington D.C., North Carolina may well be worth a second look, says Moeser.

"North Carolina has eaten our lunch, and it has much to do with the strictures on local government structure here," Moeser says, citing Wake County and Raleigh as an even better example of regional success. Those two districts merged about two decades ago.

School zones were created to integrate students by economic status. Here in Richmond that might work, he says by integrating parts of North Side Richmond with northern Henrico.

"[Wake County] based their efforts to consolidate not on race, but on income," he says, giving an outline for fighting off inevitable legal challenges to such regional consolidation efforts. Among policies in place in Wake County, he says, is that no more than 40 percent of any school's student population is on free or reduced lunch. "So far, the courts have upheld that."

More important, Moeser says, "it's worked. Their scores have gone up. And the scores from upper-income households, their scores haven't declined."

Wake continues to show improvement, but not everything is rosy in North Carolina's regional rose garden. In Mecklenburg, where a court decision about six years ago forbade busing and school assignments based on race, recent reexaminations of that district's schools show a precipitous drop in diversity in schools. Two decades ago, nearly 90 percent of schools there were considered diverse. Now, only about half achieve benchmarks for diversity.

But it's not just the court that's weakened Mecklenburg's grand experiment. Socioeconomic resegregation, it would seem, is a natural evolution. Since the court's decision, population patterns have again shifted, leaving many district schools with poverty rates above 75 percent.

Despite having a plan, Moeser also is realistic. "There won't be any city-county consolidated schools [here]; it really is tragic," he says. "But the clashes over schools between city and county are so huge that it wouldn't happen without action by the state."

Robert Seabolt agrees. An administrative partner with Troutman-Sanders, he signed the letter and says its proposed solution speaks for itself.

"I'm all in favor of regionalism," Seabolt says, but "the idea of regional schools was settled about 30 years ago."

He refers to a federal court decision that struck down an attempt by one ambitious state judge to regionalize Virginia's public schools.

Trying to re-tread that idea is "not realistic currently," Seabolt says. "We're going to have a separate city school system."

Separate, but hardly equal. S

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