Public Education: What is the State’s Responsibility


Public education remains one of the primary responsibilities shared between state and local government. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia requires the General Assembly to provide a system of free public schools. That provision has been the source of a surprising amount of controversy across the Commonwealth.

In this lesson plan, students will be reminded of the role that the Virginia Constitution’s public education section played in the Commonwealth’s historic response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After reflecting on the time in Virginia known by historians as “Massive Resistance,” the student will read the current Constitutional provision that requires the Commonwealth to maintain public schools.

Turning to recent news events, the student will read a publication from a child advocacy group that challenged the common practice of school districts in the Commonwealth of charging school fees. The ultimate goal will be assessing the legitimacy of the complaints made by the group and attempting to interpret this important section of the Virginia Constitution.

Source Analysis

Activity 1 

  • Before watching the video clip, refresh the students’ recollections of the period in Virginia after school desegregation was ordered by the Supreme Court in the Brown decision. Explain that the Gray Commission proposal allowed the Commonwealth to give parents vouchers and tuition assistance so that a child could attend a private, white academy.
  • Show the press conference of Governor Thomas B. Stanley discussing Section 141 of the Virginia Constitution, which requires the Commonwealth to provide a system of free public schools. The clip is available online at: Civil rights TV, part of the Virginia Department of Education web site.. Note: If internet access is not available, Handout #1: Virginia’s Dilemma—Thomas B. Stanley Interview Transcript may be used instead.
After students view the clip, as a class discuss the following questions:
  1. What were the conditions in Virginia public schools in 1954 prior to the Supreme Court’s desegregation order?
  2. In what ways would the Gray Commission proposal have defeated the purpose of the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and threatened public education in general?

Activity 2

Distribute Handout #2: Virginia Constitution, Article VIII, Section 1 and have students answer the questions and discuss their answers as a class.

Activity 3

Distribute Handout #3: The Price of a Free Education and Handout #4: The Price of a Free Education Analysis Questions.  Handout #3 is a publication from the children’s advocacy group JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center and is also available as a pdf online at the Legal Aid Justice Center web site.

Group Discussion

Conclude the lesson with a group discussion in which students respond to the following questions:
  • How should state and local levels of government implement public policy regarding fees and public schools?
  • What fundamental principles guide government policy in public education?
  • How do interest groups influence policymakers at state and local levels of government?


Massive Resistance

The Massive Resistance movement to the Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny, in which Southern states attempted to block or delay implementation of desegregation of schools, represents a political controversy with a multifaceted nature. From 1954 until 1959, first Governor Thomas B. Stanley and later Governor J. Lindsay Almond advocated legislative means of circumventing desegregation, including setting up a system of publicly funded private “white academies” and even closing public schools in Virginia. Many of these measures would have necessitated amending or repealing Virginia’s constitutional requirement that the General Assembly maintain a system of free public education. Although schools were closed briefly in Norfolk and Charlottesville and for five years in Prince Edward County, Massive Resistance was singularly ineffective in blocking implementation of desegregation; in Virginia, Massive Resistance as a means of achieving a state-wide response to Brown was dropped nearly as soon as it was put in place.

In 1959, after both the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the measures taken were unconstitutional, Governor Almond abandoned the cause of Massive Resistance and encouraged the General Assembly to follow his lead.  Scholars have advanced a variety of theories to explain the decision by Virginia’s political leaders to abandon Massive Resistance, most of which consider the decision to be a triumph for urban and suburban forces over the previously overrepresented rural Southside region from which the Byrd Organization obtained its political domination. Ultimately, Governor Almond explained his decision to leave Massive Resistance behind by asserting that the importance of maintaining good public education in Virginia eclipsed his opposition to desegregation of the schools.

School Fees and the Virginia Constitution

In response to the study made by the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Virginia Department of Education conducted its own survey of school districts to determine what sorts of fees were being charged. A wide range of practices was revealed. The state Superintendent issued a memo clarifying his understanding of appropriate practices concerning school fees. Many school districts drastically decreased fees, thus creating a budget deficit that only further contributed to the shortfall in funding facing public education at a time of economic downturn.


The importance of the state constitutional requirement that the Virginia General Assembly maintain a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for public policy formation by state politicians and interest groups has been demonstrated. During the upheaval of school desegregation, politicians were thwarted in their attempts to circumvent federally ordered school desegregation in part by the presence of this section of the Virginia Constitution. Similarly, policy entrepreneurs found this section of the Virginia Constitution of great value in their fight against school fees which the Legal Aid Justice Center contended disproportionately impacted low income families, thus serving to highlight the role of interest groups in the formation of public policy at the state and local level.


Rather than distributing Handouts #2 and #3 to students, the teacher could display these sources with an LCD projector or overhead projector and guide students in reading the documents. Students with access to either laptops or a computer lab could access the materials directly and perform related searches expanding their inquiry to relevant news articles relating to both school closings in the 1950s and debate over school fees during the 2008–2009 school year.