The referendum to be held Monday, January 9, to ascertain whether the voters will require the General Assembly to provide for a constitutional convention, for the purpose of amending Section 141 of the State Constitution, cannot be limited by voters to that question alone.
When the voter asks himself whether he will vote yes or no on the proposition of requiring such a constitutional convention, he must ask himself “Why?” He must ask himself whether he favors the proposed changing of Section 141. He must decide whether he favor reversing a constitutional prohibition that has stood since 1902 against the use of public funds for private schools.
More specifically, the voter must declare in effect whether he favors taking money out of the public treasuries of the State and of the locality in which he lives and paying with it the tuition charges at private non-sectarian schools of children whose parents don’t want them to attend public schools with mixed attendance or who have no public schools within reach to attend.
The voter is under special compulsion to decide now because, if the proposition should receive a favorable vote January 9, he would have a small part to play in the course of events thereafter. He would have a vote on the election of delegates to the constitutional convention, but that would be all. In the main he would have spoken his piece, and he would have to get off the stage and leave the show to other performers whom, in practical effect, he could not control.
It would not mean—
The tuition payment-private-school idea has seemed to us so full of positive objections, so full of grave doubts, so full of uncertainties, and so full of unknowns, as to require, in the public interest, setting it aside and seeking other solutions for the serious and complex problems in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions.
To set this idea aside would not mean bringing about enforced attendance of white and colored children at the same school. It would not mean hurrying the establishment of voluntary mixed attendance at many schools, if any.
Obviously changes are on the way. But just as obviously, we think, it would be a mistake to try to force them faster than, to use a homely expression, they can be digested. The actions and language of the Supreme Court permit no other interpretation than that the court is aware of the difficulties. It has gone to unusual lengths to permit intelligent dealing with them, and—if its record thus far is any guide—it will continue to do so.
The case against the tuition-payment-private school idea is quite different. It is that the idea—for it can scarcely be called a plan—is constitutionally dubious; is currently immeasurable and (as the campaign has proved) is unexplainable even by its creators and champions; is certain to damage the public school system and education in general in Virginia; is full of holes as a practical program; is uncounted in monetary cost; is divisive in its effect on race relations; and is not needed.
The constitutional doubt: Although counsel for the Gray commission have given their benediction—not with much confidence, however—to the public-funds-for-private-schools idea, some of the ablest and most respected legal minds in Virginia believe just the opposite. Virginia voters know that a high official of the Department of Justice, the dean of the University of Virginia Law School, and the Attorney General of North Carolina, who personally wishes to see segregation retained, all question gravely whether any such device would stand up in the Federal courts. But there are other men of high legal standing in Virginia who have the most serious doubt of the constitutionality of this device.
Amending the State Constitution, especially in respect to a great fundamental of public funds and private schools, ought to be considered calmly, deliberately, and with full understanding. The proposal is to amend it emotionally, hastily, and without knowledge of the results.
The public school doubt: Governor Stanley has promised to recommend that the General Assembly do its duty in carrying out its mandate under Section 129 to maintain the public school system throughout the State even if localities close their school doors. But Governor Stanley made the promise only under pressure after assuming earlier (1) that no such promise need be made, (2) that the General Assembly had done its duty under Section 129 by agreeing to the school code of 1928, and (3) that talking about how to maintain public schools where localities would provide no public funds for them would only confuse voters.
Governor Stanley can only recommend. Legislative and political leaders have made no promise to obey Section 129, and the Legislature turned down flat every proposal of that kind at the special session. Only President Darden of the University of Virginia, among the important leaders of the dominant political forces of Virginia, has insisted on “the full force and integrity” of the State in this duty.
If 18 or 20 counties refuse to appropriate funds for public schools, if large numbers of white children draw tuition payments from the State and their localities and manage to find private schools to attend, if the State is to sanction dual systems of education half public and half private, if the public schools in some areas are left mainly, or exclusively, to Negro children, then the deterioration of the public school system will be certain and may be deep.
The private school doubt: To this day no one has given any clear idea of where the private schools would be found or how they would be created. They could not be found, except perhaps in minute degree, among existing private schools, nearly all of which are full already. They could not be found, with lasting satisfaction to pupils, teachers, or parents, in the homes, churches, warehouses, or hurriedly discovered vacant buildings which have been suggested.
No one has told how standards would be maintained, accreditation would be assured, or creditable work could be done under grossly disadvantageous conditions. No one has told, if such schools were set up and maintained for a time, what could or would be done in such areas to provide the numerous new schools that will have to be produced year by year for the next decade, and more, to take care of the new waves of school children already on the way.
No one has told how teachers would be recruited, whether professional career teachers would tolerate sub-standard conditions, or how incompetents or misfits could be kept out.
No one has given the slightest indication of the cost of such a program, and some of those who have attempted to suggest possible costs have gone off in opposite directions, saying that the cost will be appreciable. The one certainty is that the individual tuition payment–$236 in Norfolk, less in most other parts of the State—would not be enough to buy much private school education.
$1,000 Down, $1,000 a Year?
The doubts about scope: Aside from the insistence that 18 or 20 counties will or may have to be provided for, because they are supposedly going to shut down their schools, no one has given any real indication of how far this idea would be carried. Some eminent and conscientious members of the Gray commission have said that the resort to tuition payments for private schools would be a last resort, chosen by only a few. But, Dr. Lancaster’s statements about buying abandoned public schools—“surplus property,” he called them, a highly suggestive descriptive of what some people think will happen to the public schools—at $1,000 down and $1,000 a year, sounded like the contemplation of large-scale operations.
No one has told what would happen in other cities and counties—other than the 18 or 20 counties always mentioned—if the parents of one child, or ten children, or 25 children, assigned to a school with mixed attendance ask for tuition money and look around for a private school which does not exist and cannot be established.
No one has said what the scope of this program would be.
The doubts about attendance and enforcement: Governor Stanley has admitted that the application of the compulsory attendance law would not be as broad as now. The almost certain effect seems to us bad. Although in theory the law would apply to children of the specified ages, without regard to whether they attend public or private schools, a period of transition and uncertainty would lead to relaxation, and in numerous instances enforcement would be difficult if not impossible. Compulsory attendance is a foundation of the theory and practice of the public school system. In Virginia it has been built up laboriously, and though far from perfect it has improved. To let it slide would be tragic.
No Sudden Change
The doubt as to need: The wisest ways of dealing with the difficult school problems are impossible for anyone—and, we add, any commission—to present with complete assurance. But the start of all efforts seems to us to be from the existing conditions and the human factors in them. There is no more reason to expect a rush of colored children into schools now attended by white children than there is the opposite. The school authorities assign children now. That fact will take care of an immense proportion of the problem.
If, in addition, the proposed assignment plan stands up constitutionally and is administered intelligently, it seems likely to take care of much more of the problem. What is left may turn out, in practice, to be quite small. As the Gray commission assumes, and as the Supreme Court’s decision requires, a start toward integration must, be made, and good faith and deliberate speed must mark all procedures. On the record thus far, the Supreme Court and the lower courts expect varying rates of change. They may recognize that in certain areas no immediate change is wise, if honest efforts are made.
This is a time for step-by-step change. The immediate mistake of the Gray commission and of Governor Stanley is their lack of patience, their insistence on going too far too fast, and their choice of a device that is probably unconstitutional, would be bad for education, and is humanly unworkable. The first task is to set it aside and start over again with the tools we have and the minds and good will we possess.
This, we think, is the course of commonsense and the hope of the future. It is the kind of statesmanship to which every voter can make an individual contribution of great worth in the Virginia democracy. Let him make it in confidence and with courage and in the determination to stand up and play the man.