Virginia's Experience

Article excerpt

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. …