By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
In 1992, Virginia became the last state in the nation to allow elected school boards. Within a few years, voters in more than 80% of Virginia’s school districts decided to trade their old appointed school boards for elected ones.
The knock on appointed school boards was that they were too often occupied by unqualified hacks and sycophants who ignored their duties while using the position as a launching pad for political careers.
Now, after only a handful of years, voters in some parts of the state are finding fault with their elected schools boards, the knock being that unqualified people are getting elected and then using their school board experience to seek higher office.
Even if the results have been about the same for both elected and appointed boards, there is a simple, glorious argument in favor of elected school boards. Democracy is the governing principle of our culture and has served us well for more than 200 years. It can be messy and yield unpredictable results, but, generally speaking, the more democracy, the better. If we don’t like the results of elected school boards, we should pay more attention to making them work, not abandon them.
There is also an argument against appointed school boards. It is neither simple nor glorious, though, as it requires a trip through Virginia’s racially-tainted past to be understood.
Appointed school boards are part of the legacy of Virginia’s post-Reconstruction period, during which the state’s white leaders sought to limit the political influence of African-Americans. It culminated in the infamous Constitutional Convention of 1901, which was devoted to codifying Jim Crow practices. At that well-documented gathering, Virginia’s leading statesmen amended the Constitution to require literacy tests and poll taxes and reinstituted felon disfranchisement. They also rejected attempts to allow elected school boards in Virginia.
Quotes from the Convention about disfranchisement of African-Americans are as shocking to our 21 st century sensibilities as they are abundant. One, from Carter Glass, the Convention’s de facto leader, sums up the general purpose of the gathering. Reacting to concerns that some of the proposed provisions would be struck down by federal courts as discriminatory, Glass said:
Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose; that exactly, is why this Convention was elected -- to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution with the view to the elimination of every [N]egro who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the strength of the white electorate.(1)
Another Convention delegate, J.B.T. Thornton of Prince William County, captured the consensus view on elected school boards. In rejecting a proposal to mandate elected school trustees, the equivalent of today’s school boards, Thornton said, “… if this report is adopted, as presented here, there are a number of counties in the State in which we will have [N]egro trustees. That is a condition of affairs that is abhorrent…”(2)
Between 1918 and 1927, four separate state legislative studies concluded that appointed school boards should be abandoned in favor of elected school boards. But the General Assembly refused to follow the recommendations and continued to ban school board elections.(3)
In 1947 the General Assembly finally capitulated to the wishes of Arlington County by passing a law permitting that one jurisdiction to elect its school board members. But even this refreshing turnabout had a distressing ending. In 1956, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Arlington’s school board voted to integrate the school system. The General Assembly reacted immediately by repealing the law allowing elected school boards in Arlington.
In 1987, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s ban on elected school boards as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The ACLU demonstrated that African-Americans were significantly underrepresented in many of the jurisdictions with large African-American populations.
We lost our case, but in the process exposed the shamefully racist philosophy that spawned appointed school boards in Virginia and then nurtured them for an additional 90 years.
Several years after the ACLU lawsuit, in 1992, the General Assembly finally voted to allow elected school boards, and the bill was signed by Governor Douglas Wilder,
Lest we think race is no longer a factor in politics, look no further than the renewal of the Voting Right Act by Congress in 2006. With the 1965 law about to expire, Congress held public hearings around the country to determine if we still needed a law prohibiting race discrimination in the design and implementation of local, state and congressional electoral plans. The answer was a resounding yes. The House of Representatives (390 Y-33 N) and the Senate (98 Y- 9 N) then voted overwhelmingly to renew this important law for 25 additional years. It was signed into law by President Bush.
So lets practice our democracy to the fullest; let’s keep the electoral process open and in compliance with civil rights laws; and, let’s fix, not abandon, elected school boards.
(1) Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, State of Virginia (2 vols., Richmond, The Hermitage Press, 1906), II, 3076.
(2) Id. , II, 1828-29.
(3) These are: The Virginia Education Commission, appointed in 1918, reporting in 1920; The Commission on Simplification and Economy of State and Local Government, 1924; a citizen’s committee appointed by Governor Harry Byrd shortly after taking office; and a commission created by the General Assembly in 1927. Source: “Declaration of Dr. Peyton McCrary,” Irby v. Fitz-Hugh, 1988. pp 15-18

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