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Virginia’s experience – Virginia’s Governor L. Douglas Wilder’s push for accessible education for Black students

Despite what some viewed as the `ideal’ Black leadership team, education gains were limited during Wilder administration

The 1989 election of L. Douglas Wilder as governor of Virginia
proved exciting to the nation. When Wilder became the first African
American governor in the commonwealth, and the first in the nation
since Reconstruction, many Black Virginians had high hopes for his
administration. Those hopes were especially high for expected
improvement in educational opportunities for minorities.

Wilder served as governor from 1990 to 1994. In the arena of
education, Wilder appointed Jim Dyke, an African American attorney, to
serve as the commonwealth’s secretary of education — a move that
signaled, to many, the governor’s concern for ensuring educational
access for all Virginians.

“The push for affirmative action and access was greater then than at any other time in Virginia history,” Dyke claims.

Dyke, who is chair of the advisory committee for the Miles To Go
report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), says that despite
the commonwealth’s plunge into a deep recession in the early 1990s, the
Wilder administration should be remembered for policy developments that
laid the “framework” for making Virginia’s public colleges and
universities more accessible to African Americans.

For example, even as state officials approved deep cuts in the
state’s budget, they managed to increase funding for need-based student
financial aid during Wilder’s tenure as governor, according to Dyke.

Recommendations for making public higher education systems more
accessible to African Americans that were included in Redeeming the
American Promise, the 1995 report by SEF, grew out of Dyke’s
experiences as education secretary in Virginia.

One such change resulted when a commission charged with advising
Dyke and Virginia officials on ways to ensure higher education access
was restructured to include representatives from the Virginia’s K-12
system. Dyke says it’s critical that more planning occur between K-12
systems and higher education systems to ensure access for all students.

“States have to bring their K-12 and higher education people together,” he says.

Another measure launched under Wilder, and now being replicated by
other states, is the establishment of agreements that allow “easy
transfer between two- and four-year institutions”, according to Dyke.
He added that Virginia began allowing part-time and community college
students to receive student financial aid during the Wilder years.

Dr. Thomas Law, president of St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville,
Virginia, concurs that minority advancement in Virginia higher
education reached a peak during the Wilder administration, especially
with regard to HBCUs.

“I can certainly say we felt it was a time that there was a high value placed on HBCUs,” Law says.

Law cites the expansion of the state’s tuition assistance grant
program to include Virginia residents attending private colleges and
universities in Virginia as a high mark for the Wilder administration.
Law, who has been president of St. Paul’s College since 1989, says the
expansion proved beneficial to St. Paul’s where more than 90 percent of
the students receive some form of financial aid.

Law adds that he believes the Wilder administration was committed
to widening access to the state’s public institutions despite the
condition of the economy. He says it’s difficult, however, in Virginia
for that commitment to remain consistent from one administration to the
next because governors there are limited to one four-year term.

“It’s tough keeping that continuity because priorities change from one governor to another,” Law says.

According to Miles To Go, Blacks earning bachelor’s degrees at
Virginia’s public colleges and universities increased from 8.8 percent
of total recipients in 1989-90 to 12.1 percent in 1994-95. The actual
numbers reflect an increase from 1,834 Blacks earning bachelor’s
degrees in 1989-90 to 2,814 in 1994-95. Nonetheless, the percentage of
Blacks enrolled full-time as undergraduates in Virginia public colleges
and universities saw only a slight increase — from 16 percent of total
full-time undergraduates in fall 1990 to 16.7 percent in fall 1996.

While hardly critical of Wilder, some Virginia officials remember
his administration more for its austerity and commitment to budget
cutting than for policy innovation in higher education.

Virginia state senator Benny Lambert (D-Richmond) says Wilder had
limited options because of budget deficits and a sour economy.

“It was not a very good time for Virginia. Wilder had to cut the
education budget to the bone,” says Lambert, who was a member of the
Virginia Senate Finance Committee at the time. He says Wilder deserves
praise for keeping Virginia afloat during the recession years of the
early 1990s.

“He handled it well,” Lambert says, adding that tuition increases
were imposed on out-of-state students, which included many Blacks whose
parents had previously attended Virginia HBCUs.

“The increases caused a decrease in enrollment of out-of-state students.”

However, Dr. George Grayson, a member of the Virginia House of
Delegates, is a vocal critic of Wilder’s higher education policies.
Grayson, a professor of government at William and Mary University in
Williamsburg, says even though Wilder had to work through a crippling
recession he believes the former governor went too far in cutting
higher education.

“I think Wilder cut the budget at the expense of higher education,” he says.

To make his point, Grayson once took a sword to the floor of the
Virginia legislature to urge the former governor not to use one on the
state’s higher education budget. Grayson says the overall percentage of
the state budget going to higher education “whether it was an HBCU or a
historically White institution” fell during the Wilder years.

Grayson says he believes deep cuts in college and university
budgets made it very difficult for schools to pursue initiatives, such
as developing outreach programs for minority students. “I think it’s
difficult to say you’re trying to expand minority enrollment with less
money coming in for everything,” he says.

But, Dr. Yvonne Miller, a professor of education at Norfolk State
University and a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates,
says it’s unfair to single out Wilder, who like all Virginia governors
are limited to serving a single four-year term.

“When Wilder took office, the Virginia economy had a downturn,”
Miller says. “None of those guys had the power of the money. The
governor proposes and the generally assembly disposes.”

Miller says evaluating Virginia’s record in desegregating its
higher education system requires examining the record of more than one
governor or one public official.

“Wilder wasn’t there in ’72. You have to start with the governor
who was there in ’72…. You need to look through the eyes of the
people who have been there through the whole period,” Miller says.

And others agree.

“It’s hard to blame anybody because everybody is a moving target,”
says Dr. Harrison Wilson, president emeritus of Norfolk State
University. “During Wilder’s administration, unfortunately we had
fiscal problems. It was a time in the country when money was a serious
problem and Wilder inherited that problem. In order to balance the
budget, he not only cut [funds to] the White schools, he cut [funds to]
the Black ones as well. It’s hard to criticize when you investigate the
whole situation.

“Virginia is a low-tax state and during [that time of fiscal
austerity], tuition went up because the state wasn’t giving the schools
the money. And when you raise tuition, you freeze out a lot of poor
kids,” he adds.

Wilson says that as the state’s Secretary of Education, Dyke did
everything he could to encourage Black students to attend college. But
he says Wilder’s administration was between a rock and a hard place.

“If Wilder hadn’t balanced the budget, can you imagine how bad that
would have looked — the first time you get a Black governor and he
doesn’t balance the budget?” Wilson says, adding, “I would like to
blame someone, sometimes, but when I look at it fair and square, he
didn’t have the wherewithal at that time.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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