Virginia's Urban-Rural Divide in Gifted Education

In 1973, Governor Linwood Holton kick-started the Governor’s School program in the state of Virginia, for which I will forgive literally any transgression that he might have ever made.

This was hardly the only remarkable aspect of Mr. Holton’s education policy as his state was dragged kicking and screaming through the Civil Rights era. While the rest of the state’s traditional elite clung to their segregation academies, the governor led by example as his children attended Richmond public schools. That was more than a token act, given that Mr. Holton was both preceded and succeeded in his office by Mills Godwin, a man who supported massive resistance to desegregation until it starting losing popularity.

So Mr. Holton is now a private citizen, of many distinguished years, and has not re-entered the political sphere save to campaign for two consecutive Democratic presidential nominees. A book-length text could undoubtedly be written about his civic accomplishments (with the publication of his memoirs in 2008, that book now exists). An article of decent quality could deal solely with his decisions in education policy. The article which you are reading at this moment will not review the entirety of Governor Holton’s education policy; rather, it will cover the very specific case study of the Governor’s Schools which he established for gifted education.


Allow me to walk you through the process by which a Governor’s School is created, according to the official procedures of the Virginia Department of Education.

First, a school division or several school divisions are hit by the idea to create a new Governor’s School to serve their area. (As some current Governor’s Schools overlap in the counties they cover, geographical exclusivity is evidently not a salient point.) They then collaborate on a proposal regarding the logistics of the operation, including the location or locations where the new school is to meet and the specifics of its future curriculum. Governor’s Schools have significant leeway on this point, as beyond the Standards of Learning set by the state there are no requirements for subject matter or educational format. This is why, for example, the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School engages in educational programs related to the Chesapeake Bay, while some Governor’s Schools in the mountainous western part of the state deal with the terrain by conducting their business almost entirely online.

Once the Department of Education, the Board of Education, and the governor all sign off on the finished regional proposal, the newest Governor’s School is officially dedicated! Until budget cuts force counties to slash funding for gifted or special ed programs (after the arts, they’re always the first to go), the opportunities afforded to graduates of Virginia’s Governor’s School programs are nigh-endless. They may go on to do something cool, like win both major-party nominations for the 2016 New Hampshire gubernatorial election (this actually happened). Then again, school districts don’t go through all this effort just for what future prestige their students might win -- at least theoretically, the main focus is on the well-being of the youth, right? Regardless of inevitable hiccups in implementation, it warms my heart to know that students who spend their formative years being regarded as fundamentally “different” are finally afforded the chance to interact with people like them, to the benefit of their mental health and the progress of their education.

At least, as long as they don’t live in the counties of Highland, Rockbridge, Floyd, Patrick, Halifax, Albemarle, Northampton, or Accomack.


Not every school district in the state of Virginia participates in the Governor’s School program.

The cities of Buena Vista, Lexington, and Charlottesville, while independent under state law, are located within one of the above listed counties which is not served by a Governor’s School. Additionally, for whatever reason, the independent city of Alexandria declines to send students to the nearby Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

With the very notable exception of Alexandria, all of these counties share the characteristic of being rural. (Yes, even parts of Albemarle County are rural. The land is different beyond the immediate environs of the University.) For a family of comfortable means in the state of Virginia, it is not particularly difficult to relocate the household to another county where their child can receive a more suitable education. There are also private schools, for those with specific cultural backgrounds and the spare cash to spend. But to significant numbers of people living in rural areas, that economic barrier is an insurmountable one.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an issue unique to gifted education. Special ed, and public schools in general, suffer in rural areas. Without initiative from county and local governments, as is done with the creation of new Governor’s Schools, the state tends to be reluctant to intervene directly, especially when the relatively low population of a region indicates lower payoffs. Particularly rural counties, meanwhile, tend to have fewer sources of income, less people to tax, and other challenges to establishing or expanding local schools. Suitable buildings don’t grow on trees; neither, for that matter, do teachers.


While I wish that I had a succinct, brilliantly worded solution for this issue, I don’t. There are counties in this state which have fallen far behind by every indicator of development, and there are counties which remain prosperous and self-sustaining. Different counties have different circumstances, economic backgrounds, and demographics. The disparity between regions of Virginia, like the country at large, are present and growing. Gifted education and egalitarian access to that great leveler may not be the only issues -- they may not even be the issue most immediately dangerous to life and security.

They remain, however, harbingers of the coming storm which seeks to split this country in half.