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Addressing the Lasting Impacts of Racist Choices on Virginia’s Education System

Intentional, Equity-Focused Policy Solutions

As history demonstrates, current-day schooling segregation continues to be crafted through a web of overt and covert racist policy choices that undermine the education of students of color. Policymakers should understand that “color-blind” solutions will not address the issues discussed in this report, but instead would ignore the lived experiences of Black students and reinforce racism. Rather, policymakers need to advance anti-racist policies, which actively seek to dismantle the racism entrenched within education and other public institutions and reduce racial inequity.

“Color-blind” solutions will not address the issues discussed in this report, but instead would ignore the lived experiences of Black students and reinforce racism.

Intentional, equity-focused policy solutions like district rezoning, regional integration efforts, need-based funding, a racial-equity centered school rating system, and affordable housing considerations are strong options that would begin to build a system of public education that works for all. In September of 2020, the Governor’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law proposed and approved recommendations for the governor and General Assembly to enact many of these policies and would bring the commonwealth one step closer to meaningful change in education.

Local and regional integration strategies

A primary method used to make progress toward school desegregation is to change how a student’s school assignment is determined. Typically, a student would be assigned to a school close in proximity and that the neighborhood they live in is “zoned” for. However, having established the persisting legacy of housing and education segregation in the state, it becomes clear that this method results in segregated and often under-resourced schools.

One way to approach this issue is through intra-district zoning policies that maintain socioeconomic and racial equity as its guiding principle alongside specific diversity goals. School divisions would make the decision to redraw school zones, based on socioeconomic status and/or the racial and economic makeup of their schools and/or neighborhoods, to create better integrated schools. For example, the Richmond City School Board recently approved school rezoning in order to increase student diversity at certain schools (among other objectives), although the Board approved a less comprehensive version of the original proposal.

Another district-wide strategy is called managed choice. In an equity-focused choice system, all families would be required to submit a set of school preferences, and their student’s assigned school would be based on a variety of determined goals that can include diversity and proximity, among others. Research has shown that this is an effective method of integration and around 50 school districts nationwide currently use a managed choice system, such as Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky, and Berkeley, California.37 It is important to note that this strategy can and should be implemented in tandem with regional policies, because many districts themselves are highly segregated and would not be able to achieve widespread racial integration within their boundaries.

In Virginia, regional education policies are critical. As noted previously, in many metro areas in the commonwealth, the racial demographics of public school students varies significantly across locality lines. For example, Roanoke City is 43% Black compared to Roanoke County, which is 7% Black. Similarly, Richmond City is 63% Black, compared to Chesterfield County, which is 25% Black.

Comprehensive regional programs often include magnet schools, which are schools of choice that can help draw families across traditional attendance boundaries, attempting to break up housing segregation patterns and districts that cannot be integrated on their own. In Virginia, CodeRVA — a regional magnet high school in Richmond City — is a good example of how they can be effective when diversity and equity goals guide school admissions and school policies generally. The school uses a weighted lottery system that helps create a student body that reflects the diversity of eligible localities. Alongside the weighted lottery, strong outreach and guaranteed, free transportation are absolutely necessary features of the school in order to create a diverse learning environment.

These features differ somewhat from other schools of choice in Virginia, whether specialty magnet schools or Governor’s Schools, which can have competitive, merit-based admissions processes. These schools have the ability to draw students across district boundaries, but without specific diversity goals, have resulted in less than diverse student bodies. One notable example is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, where only 2% of students were considered economically disadvantaged during the 2018-2019 school year (based on having received free and reduced price lunch).38 And of students admitted for the Class of 2024, only 1.7% are Black, despite Black students making up 13% of students overall in the Greater Washington metro region (Virginia localities only).

In Virginia, regional education policies are critical.

As noted previously, in many metro areas in the commonwealth,
the racial demographics of public school students varies significantly across locality lines.

In response, the governor has included language in the state budget approved by the General Assembly which requires Governor’s Schools begin setting and reporting diversity goals, to at least consider an admissions process that promotes access for students who have historically faced barriers, testing all students in eligible localities for giftedness (instead of relying on teacher identification), broader outreach efforts, and reporting of student race and socioeconomic status data. Past legislation to set specific socioeconomic diversity goals for certain Governor’s Schools has been proposed and rejected in the legislature.

While the governor’s budget language certainly is a first step, magnet schools must go further than considerations to be truly accessible to all kinds of students. They must have explicit diversity goals, a more equitable admissions process, strong outreach, and free transportation. In fact, all of the above policies are just first steps toward creating meaningful and lasting diverse, high-quality schools. Implementation should also include extensive outreach, transparency, accountability, and — last, but not least — fair funding.

Fair funding

Every student should have access to an adequately resourced school, no matter their zip code. Supplemental funding based on student need, in combination with the above mentioned policies, is an essential piece of the puzzle for Virginia. State budget cuts due to the Great Recession hit high-poverty communities the hardest, and lawmakers have yet to fully restore that funding. This has resulted in an over reliance on localities to make up the deficit, creating an upside-down system where students who need more resources are getting less — less is spent per student in our highest-poverty communities than in our wealthiest ones.

Yet the inequity goes back further than the Great Recession. Virginia’s primary aid formula, called the Standards of Quality, allocates 86% of state aid to local school divisions but does not factor in a student’s socioeconomic status. Each student is not the same. They have different strengths, interests, habits, and challenges. When it comes to allocating resources to schools, it is important to look beyond just enrollment, and factor in student demographics and the services they need to be successful.

In 2019, the Virginia Board of Education put forward revisions to Virginia’s funding formula. Among the revisions, the Board proposed the creation of an Equity Fund that would finally take into account a student’s socioeconomic status when allocating aid to local divisions in our primary funding formula — something that 24 other states successfully do.39 The Board also proposed needed increases in staffing for students who are learning English. Unfortunately, the governor and General Assembly have not followed the Board’s proposal to create an Equity Fund. However, the legislature restored proposed funding increases to need-based aid for the 2021-2022 school year, an important win for school finance equity.

School quality measures

Racist perceptions of certain neighborhoods, schools, and school districts last to present day. But the fact is that diversity is a positive thing for students and families. An updated school accreditation system could begin to shift the narrative about what a quality school looks like.

Since diversity is necessary for a quality education and adequate workforce preparation,
it should be part of the accreditation process.

School accreditation systems often take into account measures such as test scores and chronic absenteeism to determine the quality of a school. Virginia uses a mix of school quality indicators, including test scores, levels of absenteeism, “achievement gaps” between student groups, and dropout rates. While these measures can be useful for understanding where a school has room for growth and for crafting targeted interventions, schools and the experience of students in them are much more nuanced.

Research has shown that diversity is important for the growth of all students, from resource equity to personal growth and relationship building. Since diversity is necessary for a quality education and adequate workforce preparation, it should be part of the accreditation process. This has potential for incentivizing localities in the state to work toward making their schools look like their broader communities.

School ratings outside of district-published school quality report cards, like those on Zillow, also impact the way people see schools and influence their home buying decisions. Solutions to this practice are limited, because they inhabit a legal grey area.40 These more interpersonal forms of discrimination underscore the importance of shifting the narrative on how under-resourced schools are currently characterized: by deficiencies, rather than strengths.

Affordable housing

Where a family lives makes all the difference for access to a wide range of services including education, health care, and transportation, and can affect a child’s well-being in the long term. Because housing segregation and education segregation mutually reinforce each other, desegregation policies should work to sever the link between the two.

One policy that is intended to help disrupt that relationship is utilization of housing vouchers, a federal renting assistance program that helps people with very low income access housing. People who receive vouchers should be able to live in whatever area they see fit, therefore breaking up racially segregated neighborhoods and areas of concentrated poverty. In practice, voucher users have tended to locate in low-income areas due to a lack of affordable housing stock and voucher discrimination, among other reasons.41

Expanding homeownership opportunities and affordability has the potential to promote residential integration while enabling families who have historically been denied homeownership the ability to accrue wealth.

Fortunately, earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill that makes voucher discrimination illegal in Virginia for large landlords. Now that many landlords cannot discriminate based on source of income, the ability to use vouchers may become more evenly distributed across the state, enabling more people to access neighborhoods and schools with more opportunities. However, policymakers should work to remove the exemption for landlords who own four or fewer units, so that families have a wider array of housing options.

Expanding homeownership opportunities and affordability also has the potential to promote residential integration while enabling families with low income and families of color who have historically been denied homeownership the ability to accrue wealth.4243 And the need is urgent: these barriers have resulted in Black families being less likely than white families to own their homes, and that gap is greater today than it was before the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Primary obstacles to homeownership tend to be difficulties in meeting down payments, the dual credit market that exists for Black and white homebuyers which is determined by access to credit, and more explicitly, discriminatory practices in mortgage lending. To address these challenges, Virginia should increase investments in first-time homebuyer assistance programs provided by state and local housing agencies as well as proactively enforce nondiscrimination rules.

To curb discrimination in renting and mortgage lending practices, Virginia has the option to put in legal safeguards. The U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban recently rescinded the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AAFH), which implemented the 1968 anti-discrimination housing law through requiring jurisdictions receiving federal housing funds to asses levels of housing discrimination and make a plan to address them. Fortunately, Virginia has the ability to enact a similar law. For example, California recently passed their own AFFH rule.

Virginia can also enact an array of inclusionary zoning laws to increase affordable housing in high-cost areas. In fact, Fairfax County was the first in the nation to adopt an inclusionary zoning program.44 Lastly, the state should continue to make increased investments in the Housing Trust Fund, eviction diversion programs, and affordable housing development, especially considering the economic circumstances resulting from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing housing arrangements to be unstable for many people. Given that many students will have to continue virtual learning into the 2020-21 school year, a secure place in which they can do that is absolutely essential.

Virginia’s History Illuminates a Path Forward

Today, in Northern Virginia, an all-volunteer team of Loudoun County residents, historians, and high school students take on the job of unearthing records of Black schools in the area nearly lost to time. Their research and documentation pushes back against the narrative that the existence of segregated, Black schools lives far back in history, that they were nothing but dilapidated buildings. Vanessa Siddle Walker, an Emory University professor and leading expert on segregated education, said it best: “If there are no records, then the history of success — of agency, petitions, all of that — it cannot exist in the American imagination or memory. If there are no records, then you can wipe away children’s history. A people’s history.”

It’s going to take a system of intentional, actionable, and anti-racist policies to make high-quality education a reality for more than some.

The purpose of this report is not meant to inspire feelings of despair as a result of how policy historically has shaped public education. Instead, it is meant to incite urgency. Virginia’s schools have become more segregated and inequities persist, yes, but a deeper and clearer understanding of the roots of these inequities — and a recognition of success despite those inequities — illuminates a way forward.

School integration is still in its infancy. This means that we are simply in another chapter of the fight against segregation today. The political strategy for equalizing educational opportunities and outcomes in a lasting, meaningful way cannot rely on “color-blind” education policy. It also cannot rely solely on school finance, although it is a large piece of the puzzle and attention should be maintained on the issue. Ensuring integrated, diverse schools for all Virginia students deserves to once again become part of that strategy, in combination with the variety of important reforms called upon by education advocates across the state.

Skeptics — even those sympathetic to the problem of segregation — may argue that addressing this issue is overwhelming or impossible. It is true, at least in the current moment, that the courts have limited willingness to enact significant educational reforms and have ruled in ways that limit the tools available to stakeholders. And it is true that the state legislature has demonstrated a reluctance to codify basic provisions that would begin to shift opportunity in education. But it is also true that the triumphs fundamental to public education as we know it — victories driven by the leadership of Black communities — may have been thought of as impossible once, when the odds were likely worse.

Students live the legacy of both blatant and covert racist policy choices today. Policymakers, community leaders, and families will need to be both persistent and strategic to counter that legacy. There will be no single solution. It is going to take a system of intentional, actionable, and anti-racist policies to make high-quality education a reality for more than some.


  1. “School Quality Profiles,” Virginia Dept of Education (VDOE), 2019
  2. TCI analysis of Virginia school enrollment 2003-04 and 2018-19 data, VDOE
  3. Siegel-Hawley, G., “The Social Science Case for Integration,” 2018
  4. Torres, E. & Weissbourd, R., “Do Parents Really Want School Integration?” 2020
  5. Siegel-Hawley, G., A Single Garment: Creating Intentionally Diverse Schools That Benefit All Children, 2020
  6. Nowicki, J., “Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination,” United States Government Accountability Office, Apr 2016
  7. TCI analysis of 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection published by the Office for Civil Rights
  8. “Where Have All the Teachers Gone?” “Learning Policy Institute,” Aug 2017
  9. Anderson, J., The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935, 1988
  10. Williams, H., Self Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, 2005
  11. Barber, R. & Corriher B., “Honoring Reconstruction’s Legacy: Educating the South’s Children,” Facing South, Oct 2018
  12. Wong, A., “The Schools That Tried—But Failed—to Make Native Americans Obsolete,” The Atlantic, Mar 2019
  13. “Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention: Held in the city of Richmond June 12, 1901, to June 26, 1902,” Hathi Trust Digital Library
  14. Welsh, N.H., “Racially Restrictive Covenants in the United States: A Call to Action,” University of Michigan, 2018
  15. Rice, L., “Long Before Redlining: Racial Disparities in Homeownership Need Intentional Policies,” Shelter Force, Feb 2019
  16. Siegel-Hawley, G., Koziol, B., Moeser, J., Holden, T., & Shields, T., “Confronting School and Housing Segregation in the Richmond Region: Can We Learn and Live Together?” Sep 2017
  17. Howard, A.L. & Williamson, T., “Reframing public housing in Richmond, Virginia: Segregation, resident resistance and the future of redevelopment,” Dec 2015
  18. Komp, C., “Indelible Roots: Historic Fulton Hill and Urban Renewal,” VPM, Jul 2016
  19. Grandison, I.K, Race and Real Estate, 2015
  20. “Massive Resistance,” Virginia Museum of History & Culture
  21. “Runyon v. McCrary,” 427 U.S. 160, 1976
  22. Hanthrown, J. & Lenz, K., “Overcoming Exclusion,” Daily Progress, May 2004
  23. Sieff, K., “Fuqua School Looks to African American Football Star to Shed Legacy.” Washington Post, Dec 2011
  24. “The Closing of Prince Edward County’s Schools,” Virginia Museum of History & Culture
  25. “The Green Decision,” Virginia Museum of History & Culture
  26. Ryan, J.E., Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America, 2010
  27. “School Busing,” Virginia Museum of History & Culture
  28. Salmon, R.G., “The Evolution of Virginia Public School Finance: From the Beginnings to Today’s Difficulties,” 2010
  29. FY 2018 Annual Survey of School System Finances, The United States Census Bureau
  30. Dickey, K., Overview of Funding for Programs Targeted To Students At-Risk of Academic Failure, Presentation to Virginia Senate Finance Subcommittee on Education, Jun 2007
  31. Yglesias, M., “The telling conservative backlash to a Virginia zoning reform proposal, explained,” Vox, Dec 2019
  32. TCI analysis of Virginia school enrollment (fall membership) data, VDOE, 2003-04, 2018-19
  33. TCI analysis of Civil Rights Data Collection, Office for Civil Rights, 2015-2016
  34. TCI analysis of Virginia school enrollment (fall membership) data, VDOE, 2003-04, 2018-19
  35. All dissimilarity index data throughout this section is TCI analysis of Virginia school enrollment (fall membership) data, VDOE, 2003-04, 2018-19 and Labor Market Areas, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  36. Bureau of Labor Statistics Labor Market Area definitions
  37. Siegel-Hawley, G., Bridges, K., Shields, T., & Koziol, B., “A Window of Opportunity: Creating More Integrated Schools in a Segregated System,” joint report of the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies, Virginia Housing Alliance, and Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, 2019.
  38. Student Membership Demographics and Supplemental Programs, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County Public Schools
  39. “The Importance of At-Risk Funding,” “Education Commission of the States,” Jun 2016
  40. Yoshinaga, K., “Race, School Ratings and Real Estate: A ‘Legal Gray Area,” NPR, Oct 2016
  41. Koziol, B. & McCown, K., “Where You Live Makes All The Difference: An Opportunity Map of the Richmond Region,” Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, 2019
  42. Herbert, C., McCue, D.T., & Sanchez-Moyano, R., “Is Homeownership Still an Effective Means of Building Wealth for Low-income and Minority Households? (Was it Ever?),” Sep 2013
  43. Herbert, C., Ringer, S., & Spader, J, “Expanding Access to Homeownership As A Means of Fostering Residential Integration and Inclusion,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2018
  44. “Welcome to the Neighborhood: A Practitioner’s Guide to Inclusionary Housing,” HousingForward Virginia, Sep 2017
Kathy Mendes

Chris Duncombe

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