Some futurists fear we may be creating a caste system in the United States based on unequal access to quality education.
Education in Virginia, and everywhere in the United States, remains the domain of local governments. This is particularly true for raising the funds to modernize deteriorating K-12 facilities.
A school building is considered obsolete at age 40. The average K-12 facility in Virginia, and America, is 46 years old. Around half will soon be old enough to be considered for historic building status.
In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard M. Nixon agreed that the United States’ global competitiveness demanded modernization of the nation’s education infrastructure. They promised action.
Back then, lawmakers believed making school construction bonds — the main source of building funds — tax-free would solve the financing problem. Tax-free status allowed the bonds to carry a lower but still competitive interest rate for investors while modestly reducing overall project costs.
By the 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton acknowledged the nation’s K-12 facilities were crumbling. The old approach hadn’t worked.
In a new class of school construction bonds, localities would still pay back the bonds’ principal, while Uncle Sam paid the interest. This would further lower overall costs, theoretically making once unaffordable projects doable.
But whatever the policy-paper potential, it hasn’t worked.
By 2008, candidate Barack Obama declared the K-12 facilities deterioration a national crisis. In 2009, President Obama proposed the federal government borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to give directly to localities for school construction.
The proposal failed to garner support even from a Democratic-controlled Congress, as did a smaller proposal once Republicans took control.
Now comes 2016 and Richmond.
The city’s leaders have long known Clinton and Obama were right: The River City’s school buildings are obsolete.
Rather than address this reality, or the documented health and safety problems these decrepit buildings pose to students and teachers, the city’s leadership focused instead on building a new minor league baseball stadium.
That is when they weren’t using city money to lure the Washington Redskins summer camp, bike races, and breweries.
The current stadium was built in 1985.
The average school was built in 1955.
Since 2009, Richmond leaders have known the state’s top lawmakers – a bipartisan array of governors and senators – have championed a proven approach called federal historic tax credit financing. It would lower local school modernization costs in many cases by 30 percent to 40 percent.
How good is their proposal? Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is using it to finance his new hotel on the site of the Old Post Office in the District.
But thanks to an arcane glitch in the federal tax code, cities like Richmond can’t use it to upgrade aging school stock.
When Sen. Tim Kaine was governor of Virginia, he and then-Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner implored Congress to fix the law, knowing it would save localities such as Richmond hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs. Virginia Republicans, led by former governor George Allen, provided bipartisan backing.
But they lacked what is demanded in today’s 24/7 media: a local champion for what is seen as primarily a local issue.
It isn’t enough studies from Virginia Tech show how condemning kids to attend class in unhealthy and unsafe school buildings create lasting educational problems.
It isn’t enough to show how detrimental such environments are to teachers and their health.
It isn’t enough to show how a new financing plan could save cities millions in construction costs – money that could be used for instruction and teachers.
It isn’t enough to be right; you have to be relentlessly repetitive to be heard over all the shouting.
This can only happen if the new mayor actually gives a damn about the city’s public school kids.
Right now, all the mayoral aspirants say they do.
For years, special interests denied Richmonders the right to elect their mayor, fearing an independent voice answerable only to the people.
But for one citizen putting up the money and doing the hard work of petition gathering, the people won’t have such a choice.
Richmond voters now have the power.
America needs them to lead the way.