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What Do the Pandemic and School Integration Have in Common?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michelle Buehlmann
November 1, 2021

This fall, I, like many educators, have returned to the classroom. These past several weeks have been my first opportunities to teach live and in-person in the state of Virginia since the pandemic started and this experience has caused me to reflect on what has happened during the pandemic and the parallels I see to another time in Virginia history when our schools closed: the 1950s during integration. Both of these experiences bring race and bureaucracy to the forefront.

Recent racial conflict, which sparked increased public outcry while COVID-19 was in its infancy, is fresh in our minds with the murder of George Floyd, the conviction of Derrick Chauvin, the Black Lives Matter protests and more. Further, the duty of bureaucrats and their role during the 2020 Presidential election is also self-evident—and continuing to play out in some states even today. Some argue that public administrators exceeded their authority when adjusting election procedures and processes to address the pandemic.

The 1950s racial conflict may be less well-known: It centered around school integration. In brief, the State of Virginia enacted a set of laws, called the “massive resistance laws,” to avoid integrating schools. These laws required any school with integrated applicants to transfer control to the governor immediately, who then promptly closed the school.

Even less well-known, though is the role a certain bureaucrat played in ending these laws: Sidney C. Day, Jr., Virginia’s comptroller from 1955 to 1969. He was appointed assistant comptroller in 1934 (his career with the state began in 1916) and was decidedly experienced in his role when these laws came into effect. To understand his part in ending them, it is important to understand how Virginia attempted to skirt the Brown v. the Board of Education decision while not violating the requirements for a free public education outlined in the State of Virginia’s constitution.

Virginia adopted its free public education requirement in 1867 as a requirement for the state to rejoin the United States after the Civil War. To provide a free public education while avoiding integrating, the Virginia legislature adopted school vouchers so parents could make arrangements for their own child’s education. Under this plan, the state would pay for these expenses in the form of tuition grants. For the Virginia treasury to make the payments, the comptroller (Day) had to issue a warrant authorizing payment. However, consistent with the duties of the comptroller, Day questioned the lawfulness of these payments and refused to comply until the Virginia courts ruled on the matter.

It was his refusal that led to Harrison v. Day (200 VA 439), decided January 19, 1959 by the Supreme Court of Virginia, in which the Court struck down the last vestiges of Virginia’s massive resistance laws. That same day the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia also ruled on James v. Almond (170 F. Supp. 331), which struck down other elements of the massive resistance laws.

Some have argued the James v. Almond decision ended Virginia’s massive resistance, but I contend that many in Virginia would have considered this decision just another federal imposition on the state’s sovereignty if the Virginia Supreme Court ruling in Harrison v. Day—a “homegrown” decision—had not also taken place.

Maybe the lesson of this story is that the relationship between the state elected officials and state bureaucrats is not a simple, hierarchical one. Rather, it is a system of checks and balances—as it was originally designed to be.

Day is a public servant who deserves to be remembered, not just for his 53 years of service to the State of Virginia, but also for his refusal to act and for asking the right question at the right time.

Author: Michelle M. Buehlmann is adjunct assistant professor, Northern Virginia Community College, adjunct professorial lecturer, American University and adjunct instructor, George Mason University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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