Leahy: Good News in Virginia on School Construction and Parole Board Reform

As the General Assembly and the Youngkin administration begin the real work of the 2022 session — dickering over the fine details and political flash points of Virginia’s budget — there are two items that deserve a little more attention.

One is a measure coming out of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates that would create a roughly $2 billion loan fund to help localities tackle the massive backlog of school repair and construction needs.

It’s not the perfect solution to the state’s public school infrastructure crisis, erring as it does on the side of parsimony. It’s not even very novel, considering how it builds off the existing (and ill-used) Literary Fund. The estimated tab for replacing those schools that are well past their safely usable life is $25 billion.

But it’s better than no solution at all. If the Senate agrees to this proposal, then, finally, Virginia will be on the way to addressing a long-standing embarrassment that also posed a threat to health and safety for kids, teachers, and administrators alike.

And I can’t leave the issue there without noting the words of Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“I take the approach that schools need to be replaced, but it is not a state function,” he said in an interview. “It has never been a state function. I didn’t want to set a precedent.”

This is wrong. According to the Department of Education’s 2021 report to the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, state government was an active builder of schools until the 1930s, when the state took over road building and maintenance from profligate counties and left the counties in charge of building schools.

The report noted that in the 1940s and 1950s, state government “provided localities with grants for school construction.” Those grants, not surprisingly, faded with the rise of that other ugly chapter in Virginia history: “massive resistance.” The state’s support for construction dwindled even further following the collapse of massive resistance, moving “primarily toward providing loans only.”

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