My involvement with public education represents a lifetime of experience. I was seven when my mom ran for the Arlington school board. I attended the Arlington public schools. Then my dad enlisted as an attorney in the Norfolk 17 case to defeat Massive Resistance. A decade later, I arrived in Richmond the month that the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) were completely integrated for the first time.
It has always been about race in RPS and Richmond. Back then, the newspapers constantly trashed RPS. They said it was because it was a bad school system. But I knew they did it because the schools were racially integrated. Meanwhile the state helped re-segregate the schools, and middle class whites and Blacks fled the city. A narrative developed that these were “failing” schools. The question was, who was failing whom? It was the Commonwealth of Virginia that failed to provide the resources to insure equity. The only slightly veiled suggestion was that the teachers and children of Richmond weren’t trying hard enough.
My personal and professional experience has helped me see the truth. I’m married to a former RPS teacher and we sent our four children through RPS all the way. I worked with the schools for decades. I helped to re-start Communities in Schools and establish the Micah Initiative, Armstrong Leadership Program, Armstrong Freshman Academy and the RPS Education Foundation’s high school Future Centers program. All of this time, I’ve been working with people in Richmond and RPS who are identifying what works and what is needed to help young people succeed. We simply don’t have the resources. It has become clear that rather than face the systemic racism of policy, the state, media, and public have reverted to the centuries-old narrative — blaming failure on the underserved. Meanwhile, the pretend “equity” of repetitive testing continues to drain the life out of both students and teachers.
The most direct route to racial equity in metropolitan Richmond is what I would call a Rich Education for all, by way of Rich Schools. The most direct route to a Rich Education for all is to double the educational wealth of African American families and children. The educational wealth provided by a Rich Education is aimed toward genuine health, wealth, literacy, interest, and human capacity. It is something no one can take from you – it serves your spirit and soul, as well as your employment and your life.
Currently, Virginia remains committed to educational inequity. African American educational wealth is under constant threat and, in some communities, barely holding its own. Since the end of Virginia’s Massive Resistance in the 1960’s, metropolitan Richmond’s schools have been re-segregated both by race and by income. The result is a Rich Education only for the affluent. Rather than changing the paradigm of the race-based educational discrimination that was developed under slavery and Jim Crow, the state has developed new practices, which reproduce, reinforce, and intensify the old inequity.
The statistics are unforgiving. Education is generationally cumulative. The educational level of children, if not addressed with equity in mind, generally follows the educational level of their parents. Poverty follows educational level. And it was the policy of Virginia for nearly four centuries to determine poverty by race. Therefore:
● If you wish to bring about racial equity, you must address poverty;
● If you wish to address poverty, you must address educational equity;
● If you wish to address educational equity, you must address educational wealth.
The schools of the segregated are subjected to the standards of the wealthy with the resources of the poor. A Rich Education for a person born into a low-income, racially disadvantaged household requires 200% of the resources which are, in contrast, already present in the home and school of an upper middle income, racially advantaged household. State policy is blind to this. It is time to acknowledge this reality without embarrassment or disingenuousness, and to provide the resources necessary to make equity possible. The Commonwealth of Virginia must provide educational funding based on the income level of the students it serves.
We know a lot about what is needed for a Rich Education for students who have received the brunt of generational educational deprivation. Barbara Johns, Oliver Hill, and the warriors of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia sought racial integration of schools so that they could guarantee a Rich Education regardless of race.
A Rich Education for this generation, beginning with pre-kindergarten, will help to equalize employment, increase home ownership, retard suburban sprawl, and break down the inherited artifacts of racial privilege. A Rich Education for this generation will cut metropolitan Richmond’s school-to-prison pipeline in half. Providing Rich Schools will make racial integration less necessary – and therefore, more likely.
Schools that provide a Rich Education are tuned first of all to the social and emotional needs of students – a concentration that Virginia’s State Department of Education neither encourages nor funds. They have plenty of trained counselors; intensive support from tutors; drama and sports and music programs fully funded; extra hours for enrichment. Reading and writing are taught from the beginning, in classrooms full of age-appropriate literature. A rich, integrated curriculum is present, with history, geography, social studies, and science. Classes are as small as they need to be for success. Thoughtful conversation and critical thinking abound. Advanced classes are available to all students. There are ample and proactive college and career counselors. There are summer schools and camps and school buses for exploration. There are new, spacious, encouraging facilities, with lighting on playing fields. The narrow misery of high-stakes-testing-based curriculum will be abandoned. This is the Rich Education that every parent wants for their child.
To provide the Rich Education that our children deserve, we must be rigorous in providing significantly higher pay — $10,000 to $30,000 or more per year – for the teachers who have the skill and culture to flourish in impoverished or racially concentrated environments. These salaries must be high enough so that skilled professionals without inherited wealth can afford to teach in public schools. These are the heroes of our time.
Providing a Rich Education through Rich Schools is the most fundamental responsibility of the State of Virginia. The inability to have Rich Schools is not the fault of Richmond, Petersburg or Hopewell. Advocates for Rich Schools must address the Commonwealth of Virginia, the State Board of Education, the Governor, and the General Assembly directly. There is no alternative. Educational inequity is the comprehensive, systemic policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia, carried out in one form or another for centuries. The schools that need the least money are in the jurisdictions with the highest income, paid for by the local real estate tax. Their ample bank accounts are segregated against the city’s need for Rich Schools.
If we want Rich Schools and educational equity, we must change state educational strategy – to stop reducing schools to high-stakes testing mills. And we must change state funding policy – to make rich funding available where it is needed.
There is a simple solution, and it is probably the only solution:
1. The state will fund 100% of the costs of public education. Currently, it claims to fund 55% of its standard educational package, leaving an average of 45% to the localities. Localities with persons of lower income – and therefore higher educational need – cannot possibly afford Rich Schools to produce equitable education. They cannot find the tax money to pay for them.
2. The state will base its funding of Rich Schools on the per capita income of student households of origin. Fifty percent of the population – the half with the highest household income — will be funded at the present, standards-of-learning level. Any extra funding will come from the discretionary income of the locality. The other 50% — on a sliding scale – will be funded up to twice as richly, ranging from a 50% increase for some to a 100% increase for the lowest income quarter of our students.
3. The funding of public schools will come from a statewide tax on real estate. Currently, the affluence of Richmond’s suburbs allows them to have a richer school system with a real estate tax levy that is as much as one-third less than the state-impoverished center city. Creating a statewide real estate tax to pay for public education will make the requisite funds available in the right places, following the basic principle that you must tax where there is money. It will also reduce one of the primary incentives that the state currently gives for suburban sprawl and school segregation. Localities will adjust their local tax rate to accommodate the new state tax.
4. The state will create a capital fund for school construction. Since the General Assembly, reacting to school integration in the 1960’s, decided to isolate center cities economically, Richmond and other center cities have been unable to keep up school maintenance and construction because their budgets would not support sufficient school bonds. The same is true of some impoverished rural areas. Richmond is, by some estimates, $600 million in arrears on school maintenance and construction, unable to issue bonds sufficient to remedy the situation. The state, which created this situation, has an obligation to provide the funding necessary for Rich Education for all.
5. Richmond advocates will focus their efforts on the Commonwealth of Virginia, which created this inequity. Part of the strategy of continued discrimination in Virginia since the end of Massive Resistance has been to deflect blame for inequity on the isolated, minority-led, center cities. Although there are, and will continue to be, issues with Richmond Public Schools as with any system, its biggest problems are dictated by the State of Virginia. The truth must be told. The state must be held accountable.
Rich Education is the Redemption of the Confederacy, attacking the heart of structural racism. It is time to win – time to make it work – time to claim the heritage we know is there, to put our money where we know it is needed, and to stop acting as if there is nothing we can do. Education has always been the way to success and equity. The people of Richmond can devise the program, and seek the allies all over the state, for this to happen. It will be a win for all, the fulfillment of the dreams of generations, a major step toward the completion of the yet incomplete American Revolution.
The Rev. Ben Campbell is an Episcopal priest, the author of Richmond’s Unhealed History. He is currently a Pastoral Associate at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. For 28 years, he was Pastoral Director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian community in Church Hill, where he and his family were residential members. He was a founding member of the Armstrong Leadership Program; the Micah Association, connecting 125 faith communities to Richmond’s elementary schools; the Armstrong Freshman Academy; Communities in Schools; and the Richmond Public Schools Educational Foundation, which started the Future Centers in Richmond’s high schools. His four children attended RPS from start to finish. He is married to Annie Campbell, who just retired after 30 years as an educator at William Fox Elementary School. He is a member of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, and is actively involved in plans for the Museum of the American Slave Trade in Shockoe.
This essay is part of the Richmond Racial Equity Essays series, exploring what racial equity looks like in Richmond, Virginia. It is reprinted here with permission. Check out the full project, the accompanying videos, and the podcast.