QUESTIONS OF public education in Virginia are inextricably bound up in the state's tangled racial history. In ruling that a Virginia law forbidding the election of school boards is constitutional, the Supreme Court this week addressed the difficult and familiar question of whether a policy that dated from the state's 1903 constitution, and at that time had the clear intent of excluding blacks, is still discriminatory today and -- related but not the same question -- whether it is maintained for discriminatory reasons. The high court declined to review a lower court's decision upholding the law, which in effect forces all school boards to be appointed by local politicians -- the only such law in the nation. The lower court listened to the state's arguments that the policy is being maintained for a variety of non-discriminatory reasons -- for instance, insulating school boards from the political process -- and that its discriminatory effects have disappeared. As of 1984, a study found the percentage of black school board members statewide was roughly the same as the state's black population, though marked disparities persist in individual counties and districts.

The issues involved here -- discriminatory intent versus effect, the effect of various civic mechanisms on racial fairness and racial balance -- are vexed ones that the court has frequently and contentiously addressed. But that the law was found constitutional does not erase its educational history; nor does it mean this method of picking school boards is necessarily best for education in Virginia. The history is unsavory. The struggle to "insulate" school boards from "politics" was a continuing theme in Virginia's ugly struggle against school desegregation; the school board of Arlington, which with Alexandria and Fairfax had historically been allowed direct election under an exception to the law, had that privilege removed by special legislation after Arlington voted for partial desegregation in 1956. With those battles in the past, there have been intermittent efforts to switch to local school board elections or, at the very least, to grant localities the option to switch. In recent years, most recently in 1988, the existence of the class action suit was a commonly given reason for delaying any such changes.

But during those same years the level of public interest in the schools has been steadily rising, and a whole galaxy of new ideas and resources are now available for parents who care about the changes taking place in public education and who want to influence their direction. Making local school board elections an option -- not necessarily mandatory -- would be a clear way to bring parents and schools closer. With the court case gone as an excuse, why doesn't someone in Richmond take up this long-stalled reform?