1849 code of virginia

Fox News, Virginia, and Us: Educational Equity in Loudoun County

Since 2019, The Equity Collaborative has been working with Loudoun County Public Schools on assessing and improving their educational equity efforts. The county’s initiative has made some national headlines—on Fox News and in the Washington Post, for instance. It’s also become fodder for plenty of smaller conservative outlets that say things such as “they’re indoctrinating kindergartners,” as well as some incredulous Facebook commenters:

Facebook comment about equity assessment in Loudoun County

Not only is that Facebook commenter incredulous; they’re also misinformed. Because, well, very few of us are white. And also because talking to the actual people who live in the community is exactly what we did. We conducted interviews and led focus groups with lots and lots of different folks from the community—students, parents, teachers, the county’s citizenry at large. Out of those conversations emerged both themes to acknowledge and actions to take:

Five Emergent Themes
  1. Despite efforts from the division, school site staff, specifically principals and teachers, indicate a
    low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy. People are unclear and fearful on how to
    participate in conversations about race, let alone respond to racially charged incidents.
  2. Educator focus groups indicated a desire to recruit and hire diverse school staff that reflect
    student racial and language backgrounds.
  3. Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading
    many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty.
  4. Discipline policies and practices disproportionately negatively impact students of color, particularly Black/African-American students.
  5. Many English Learners, Black/African-American, Latinx, and Muslim students have experienced the sting of racial insults/slurs or racially motivated violent actions.
Four Primary Recommendations
  1. Produce and publish on the “Superintendent’s Message” page a new division-authored
    statement defining and condemning White supremacy, hate speech, hate crimes, and other
    racially motivated acts of violence. Require individual schools sites include this message on their
    webpage and in communications to parents twice a year (not only in response to an incident).
  2. Review the current/establish a clear policy with built-in accountability for addressing racially
    motivated acts and create proactive leadership measures to address the student use of racial
    insults. Name that the N-word is not tolerated by anyone in LCPS.
  3. Design additional opportunities for LCPS educators to engage in professional learning about
    color consciousness and implicit bias. Further establish a culturally-responsive framework to
    inform curricular and instructional efforts across the division.
  4. Revise the current/establish a short- and long-range action plan to address challenges related to
    hiring for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Do we love that some of the loudest voices have framed our work with Loudoun County as “controversial?” No. Do we appreciate how much those voices have amplified the progress we’ve helped Loudoun County make? Yes.

We consider ourselves coaches. There are several ways to describe what we do, but ultimately we try to facilitate three things in the people we work with: a) the realization that change is needed, b) a commitment to change, and c) a whole-system, top-to-bottom behavioral shift toward that change.

None of those things is easy. In fact, they’re all very hard. What’s more, you can’t do the third one without achieving the second one, and you can’t do the second one without doing the first. So yes, it’s hard work—akin to climbing a mountain with centuries’ worth of dirty laundry strapped to your back. But we think it’s worthwhile work—crucial work, even.

Educational Equity in Virginia: A Glance at the History

The public schools in each school division shall be free to each person of school age who resides within the school division.

On the face of it, this is an innocent, not-at-all-interesting quote from the current version of the Code of Virginia, which compiles all the legislation currently on the books in that state. Technically, this current version of the Code is from 1950, but there have been plenty of clause-by-clause revisions in the years since. Previous official re-writes of the Code were published in 1819, 1849, 1887, and 1919.

The 1849 version of the line quoted above reads a little differently. There’s an extra word right near the beginning that changes the spirit of the clause a good bit:

Any white child, between the ages of six and twenty-one, resident in a district, may attend and be instructed at the school thereof.

“White.” Of course. The history is inevitable, and it’s one we all know to one degree or another. We would argue that knowing is much, much less than half the battle, though. Nor does it permit you to leave the past in the past or absolve you of a responsibility to think about the future.1849 Code of Virginia school segregation excerpt

Nearly 30 years later, the 1887 version dropped the provision that only white children may attend a district’s schools. However, it added the caveat that “white and colored persons should not be taught in the same school.” Segregation. Separate but equal.

(The 1887 version also dropped the minimum age from six to five—we’re not sure why.) The 1919 version kept the segregation clause firmly intact (it also raised the minimum age from five to seven—again, we’re not sure why.)

For what it’s worth, by the way, the 1819 version of the Code of Virginia doesn’t explicitly lay out a system of public schools for children of any race. It does, however, authorize school commissioners to “determine what number of poor children they will educate.” Of course, that implies that all non-poor children were due an education but that less than 100 percent of “poor children” would enjoy the privilege. That idea goes all the way back to Virginia’s favorite son, Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for separate educational tracks for “the laboring and the learned.” He also allowed for using public funds to educate a select few of those laborers, thus “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”

But we digress…

Soon enough on this timeline, of course, the Code of Virginia meets up with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Virginia failed to comply with federal desegregation guidelines in a timely manner, Senator Harry Byrd called for “Massive Resistance,” (code for white parents putting their kids in private schools with the nation’s first government funded school voucher system), and the rest of the school segregation timeline played out.

Why Are We Talking about the Code of Virginia?

Because this is not ancient history. It’s living history. This is work that would have been impossible to pull off in 1819, 1849, 1887, 1919, 1950, 19**, and beyond. Change takes time, and it doesn’t come about by accident. At the end of the day, our job is to distill impossibly complex ideas into ideas that people can actually act on. That’s how educational equity in Loudoun County comes to pass.

The Equity Collaborative is really just a tiny footnote to this discussion, written in the finest of fine print. But we’re proud of the work we’re doing, we’re proud of the work Loudoun County is doing, and we think our tiny little footnote has the capacity to speak volumes.

We invite you to read the full assessment report we produced for Loudoun County Public Schools. You can also listen to The Equity Collaborative’s Graig Meyer on WAMU.

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