Virginia legislators went home Saturday, but not before patting themselves on the back over the state budget.
It was the principal business of the election-year session of the General Assembly, one in which the hard choices required to close a $1.26 billion hole in the budget were sugar-coated by pricey goodies that a jittery Republican majority hopes will shield it from voter backlash to Donald Trump in a state that tipped to Hillary Clinton.
The $107 billion budget, spending cuts notwithstanding, includes pay raises for public school teachers, college professors, state and local law enforcement officers, and civil service workers.
This is a story that Republicans can tell across Virginia — even in suburbs where the GOP isn’t very popular.
But one doesn’t have to drill too deeply into the just-passed budget before hitting enduring difficulties that have defied Republicans and Democrats — or that they choose to ignore.
The priciest is public school funding, and it persists because legislators created a problem for themselves nearly 50 years ago, believing that they were avoiding one.
In 1970, when debating the revised Virginia Constitution that would take effect the following year, the General Assembly — then controlled by Democrats — fussed and fulminated over provisions guaranteeing that the state would maintain high-quality public schools.
The dollars — and sense — of this commitment are embodied in the so-called Standards of Quality, or SOQ. It is the constitutionally designated, minimum annual investment by the state in a student’s K-12 education.
And while it is supposed to be a legally enforceable obligation — some courts have hemmed and hawed about it — it is one around which the legislature can maneuver because it, alone, defines “high quality.”
This is why local governments, nervous about their ability to generate cash because of sluggish growth in real estate taxes, their biggest source of revenue, pressed the 2017 General Assembly to include in the budget $1 million for a study on whether the state provides schools enough money to meet education obligations.
But the money committees of the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate — perhaps because they know the General Assembly is anything but blameless — said no way, no how to the study, which was proposed by the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties and Virginia First Cities, a coalition of the state’s oldest cities.
Virginia raised taxes by $1.4 billion for education and other core services in 2004. But the Great Recession and the political polarization it helped produce have eroded the dollar’s buying power and the capacity of legislators to agree on realistic, long-term remedies — structural and financial — to problems such as school funding.
How badly is the state shorting local schools? Even before lawmakers arrived in Richmond in January, one of their own estimates showed that spending cuts had eliminated about $800 million a year in state aid to public education.
The budget now before Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his revisions and vetoes includes a modest increase in K-12 funding — about $20 million above what he recommended.
Localities are making up for the lost funds — and then some.
Cities and counties, combined, are appropriating $7.2 billion a year to meet their K-12 requirements. That is more than twice what they are required to spend. Economic and demographic trends threaten to push costs even higher.
For example, there are more low-income and non-English speaking students attending Virginia public schools. Over eight years, the number of students eligible for free lunch — an acknowledged measure of poverty — grew 10 percent. The increase in students eligible for English instruction is 63 percent since 2006.
In 1970, such challenges likely were far from the minds of legislators. They were keenly aware, however, of the continuing aftershocks of court-ordered desegregation, which Virginia — through a policy of Massive Resistance — briefly defied in the late 1950s by shuttering public schools rather than open them to whites and blacks.
Though the Virginia Constitution as far back as 1869 included a commitment to public education, the 1970 iteration established a mandate: “The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.”
That is not the language originally recommended to the legislature by a commission, made up of prominent lawyers, corporate leaders, educators and former government officials, that crafted the state’s modern constitution, said one of the panel’s legal advisers, Hullie Moore.
Moore, a future member of the State Corporation Commission, the agency that polices business, said in a 1971 article for the University of Richmond Law Review that lawmakers softened the language. The provision first said the General Assembly “shall ensure” quality education. But lawmakers equivocated and rewrote it to say “shall seek to ensure.”
Those two little words — “seek to” — were a consequence of a big worry: that more forceful language would expose Virginia’s public schools to federal court decisions similar to those issued elsewhere and require potentially budget-busting investments to make up for inequities attributed to race or income.
The tweak was subtle but significant. Moore, a former partner in a Main Street law firm that represented the Virginia Education Association, the teachers union, wrote, “The change has no substantive effect, but tends to lessen the assembly’s commitment to education.”
That was certainly the way some legislators interpreted it.
Sen. Henry Howell Jr., a populist Democrat from Norfolk who three times stood for governor, and Sen. James Turk of Radford, a moderate Republican and future federal judge, unsuccessfully sought to restore the original language.
They chided the General Assembly for pussyfooting on a fundamental right, and in doing so widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.
According to a transcript of the legislative debates, Howell said — and one can hear his reedy voice — “‘Seek to,’ ‘seek to,’ just think of those words. Listen to them. ‘Seek to.’ What the people of Virginia are looking for is a guarantee. ...
“A constitution is made up of guarantees. I hope your hearts will not fail, that you will do what you know you must do and vote for this amendment and take the ‘seek to’ stuff out.”
And Turk, who had fought Massive Resistance, said, “One of the things that has been wrong with our educational system in the state of Virginia has been the difference in the quality of education in different parts of the state.”
Indeed, nearly a half-century later, the options for a student in wealthy Fairfax County exceed those available in distressed urban schools such as Petersburg’s or those in rural areas, including Southside and Southwest Virginia, where the traditional textile and coal economies have collapsed.
But at least the teachers are getting a pay raise.
And that beats talking about Trump.