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Well, who saw that coming?
Tuesday’s elections were expected to sweep in a new group of Fairfax County School Board members. Just about everyone (including, I confess, me) anticipated that several of the six incumbents running for reelection would be defeated.
Instead, all the incumbents won. And most of the open seats were filled by candidates seen as generally supportive of the school system.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the challengers made a fundamental miscalculation about the mind-set of the voters. After all, people don’t move to Fairfax for the roads.
Parents who take jobs in the metropolitan area put up with terrible commutes to enroll their children in Fairfax County public schools. Businesses locate in the county so their employees can send their children to a school system that remains one of the best in the nation. So residents are deeply invested in their schools. That can lead to activism and intense involvement, as veterans of public hearings will attest.
Whether the concern is about a policy or a principal, Fairfax residents speak out. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to a “throw ’em all out” mentality on Election Day.
Still, the new board will make a big mistake if it concludes that Tuesday’s election was a mandate for business as usual. There are real issues to address.
The board is already acting on some of them. Discipline policies are under review. The budget process will begin in January, and with it will come an opportunity to address class sizes and teacher compensation.
But other concerns remain to be addressed. It’s time to have a straight-up conversation about whether the school system is preparing all students to be, in today’s parlance, “college- and career-ready.”
At first glance, it sure seems like it. Anyone who drives through the county will see lots of cars with Ivy League window decals. Clearly, most Fairfax students — more than 94 percent, in fact, according to school system statistics — get to college.
But do they get through college? There’s cause for concern.
According to figures released at a May meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, 2,913 of last year’s first-time freshmen at Northern Virginia Community College — 62 percent — needed to take at least one remedial class. That suggests most of those students will never earn a degree: Education Department statistics cited by Getting Past Go, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing college graduation rates, show that only 17 percent of high school graduates who require at least one remedial reading course and 27 percent who require a remedial math course earn a bachelor’s degree.
Without a degree, these students will be unlikely to qualify for the kinds of high-tech, high-wage jobs that have fueled this region’s economy. Consequently, they’ll be priced out of the homes that would allow their children to attend Fairfax public schools.
The board also needs to address the perception that it is too inwardly focused. After nearly a decade of school board service, I know the job can be all-consuming. But it is critical that board members spend time every week meeting with parents and civic associations.
One thing they’re sure to hear is that citizens want to be involved in choosing the next superintendent. The board must begin an open process right away.
Board members also need to be in the schools. Talking with teachers and principals will make them far better advocates for the needs of the students in their district.
There needs to be a little fence-mending with the teachers, who supported very few of the successful candidates who ran in opposed races. Everyone should remember that elections are one thing, governing something else entirely. (For the record, the Fairfax Education Association actively opposed my reappointment to the school board in 1992. I was reappointed anyway. Eventually, we could all laugh about it.)
Elections are always about choices. On Tuesday, Fairfax County clearly chose stability over wrenching change. But unless the board acts on the concerns it heard on the campaign trail, we can anticipate another contentious race in 2015.
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