Their point of view | Controversial History of the Formation of the Virginia Public School System | Editorial


Virginia’s public school system was born 152 years ago this month.

“Be it decreed by the General Assembly, that there be established and maintained in this State a uniform system of public schools,” reads the law approved July 11, 1870. “The free public school system shall be administered by the following authorities, in mind: a board of education, a superintendent of public instruction, superintendents of county schools, and district school commissioners.”

The occasion is an opportunity to revisit the story of Virginia’s first superintendent of public instruction, William Henry Ruffner, who was also the architect of the public school system. The law passed by the General Assembly in 1870 was based on his proposals.

Ruffner (1824-1908) has been dubbed “the Horace Mann of the South,” a reference to the Massachusetts lawyer and legislator who was our young nation’s first great advocate of public education. (It should be noted that he is not the only historical figure in the American South to bear this label. The “Horace Mann of Virginia” is perhaps more apt, and nearly impossible to argue.)

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A Lexington native, pastor and educator whose life story intersects with Washington and Lee University, Virginia Tech, Longwood University in Farmville, and Roanoke College in Salem, Ruffner campaigned fiercely for the retention and survival of public schooling. tuition against critics who saw tuition-free schools as an unnecessary burden on state finances.

A Union supporter who nonetheless served in the National Guard when Virginia seceded to the Confederacy, Ruffner was not an example of enlightened thinking on the defining issue of his day, the property of enslaved people. A slave owner himself, Ruffner argued that the institution of slavery had to end, but for economic, not moral, reasons. He was unfortunately a proponent of the innate superiority of the white race and a proponent of “colonization” – a school of thought pushing the idea that free African Americans should emigrate to Africa rather than stay in the country.

Imperfect Champion of Education Equality

But unlike many of his white contemporaries, he believed that free and enslaved black Americans needed to be educated. He ran Sunday schools for African Americans in pre-Civil War Virginia, a practice at odds with the establishment, though he said he only provided oral instruction because the law of the state forbade reading to be taught to slaves.

His views may have been influenced by his father Henry Ruffner, who was once president of Washington College – now Washington and Lee – but resigned after he stirred controversy by writing an article advocating the gradual emancipation of slaves in the west of Virginia.

The public school system designed by William Ruffner was segregated by race, prompting African-American members of the General Assembly to vote against it in protest. Ruffner argued that tensions would be too high if schools were integrated, although he expressed a belief that one day there would be no prejudice between races.

Although separate but equal ultimately proved unsuccessful in practice, Ruffner at least had a goal of equal education for white and black students, and he founded separate summer institutes to train white and black teachers.

Ruffner was a tireless advocate of free public schooling, consistently defending it against critics who saw it as a waste of state money and who disapproved of the education of black students. Although the General Assembly replaced Ruffner in 1882, the institution he created has endured and evolved.

After a brief stint teaching at Roanoke College, Ruffner would end his career as principal of the State Female Normal School in Farmville, a teacher training school for white women established in 1884. Ruffner had long called for the establishment of such a school, although the General Assembly at first thwarted these ambitions. This school in Farmville eventually became Longwood University.

Here is a historical figure with personal flaws and misguided opinions whose legacy nevertheless lingers on every Virginia school bus ride and every hand raised in a Virginia elementary school classroom, the fruits of his vision continuing to benefit inhabitants of the Commonwealth long after his death. .

Is Ruffner’s story “dividing”?

In 2022, the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction of Virginia is held by Jillian Balow, imported from Wyoming by Governor Glenn Youngkin. Its main qualification appears to be a worldview consistent with Youngkin’s pledge to end the teaching of ‘divisive concepts’ – which in practice seems aimed at muzzling any discussion of past and present race and discrimination. in Virginia classrooms.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to promoting excellence in education — which takes positions that align with Youngkin’s, such as advocating for charter schools — released a report in 2021, “The State of State Standards for U.S. Civics and History.”

The introduction to the report begins: “Is America a racist country? Or the greatest nation on earth? Or both or neither or a part of each? In the interests of our children’s education…we need a more thoughtful and balanced starting point for the whole conversation – a starting point that leaves room for nuance, mutual understanding and hope for the future.

Nothing to discuss there. The nonpartisan report then assesses how K-12 standards for history and civics stack up in each state. Virginia received a B+ rating, which essentially equates to “good but needs improvement in a few specific areas.”

Wyoming, where Balow served as superintendent of public instruction since 2014, received an “F” in civics and history from this conservative think tank. “Wyoming’s US history and civics standards are inadequate, failing to even offer a basic outline of essential content,” the report read.

We hope this is not an omen. It would be a travesty to see Virginia education standards downgraded to appease ideological dogma, whether those dogmatic views come from the right or the left.

One can’t help but wonder: what would this administration find acceptable if a teacher chose to share the multifaceted story of William Henry Ruffner in the classroom? Would students be allowed to consider man as a whole?

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