Silly but useful Fairfax hysteria
I'm not saying the cuts in the Fairfax County schools budget are a good thing. But the end-of-the-world reactions from Fairfax County parents in my colleague Petula Dvorak's latest column are so divorced from reality as to be comical.
Fairfax schools superintendent Jack Dale has proposed raising the average class size a kid or two, and cutting back on full day kindergarten, summer school, music classes and freshman sports. My award for most exaggerated quote of the month goes to Fairfax mom Tina Meek, who told Dvorak "If this happens, we'll be just like the other school districts."
She needs to get around more. In two weeks my annual Challenge Index rating of local high schools will come out, showing Fairfax high schools with an average college-course test participation rate of 2.917 per graduating senior, about six times the national average. Its average SAT scores are about 300 points above the national average. Its college going rates are similarly in the stratosphere. None of that is going to change, despite the budget cuts.
But the hysteria rolling through one of America's richest and most high performing school systems is at the same time something to be thankful for. Parents are organizing to keep the cuts to a minimum. Nobody wants to hurt those schools. Everyone fears, unnecessarily, a drop in their property values if those reductions are made. All that worry is a telling indicator of parent commitment to public education in that district, and that is one big reason why the Fairfax Schools are going to maintain their high quality no matter what happens to the budget.
For a middle class, education-conscious community like Fairfax, a cut-back in full day kindergarten will have no discernable effect on student achievement. The same goes for an increase in class size of one or two students per teacher. Research shows that for middle class parents who read to their kids and value schooling, the quality of their elementary schools have little effect on their children's achievement. Middle and high school achievement is similarly tied to average parental income. Those parents provide much of the enrichment their kids need, and create an atmosphere where the quality of instruction is going to stay pretty much where it is.
The kind of marginal budget cuts they are talking about never lead to the exodus of great teachers that many urban districts suffer. Fairfax teachers are going to stay where they are. The same goes for the fine teachers in the Washington area's many other high performing school districts, whose budget cuts will also have little long term significance.
Those teachers know, perhaps more than many of their parents, how much better they have it here than just about any other place they could go. Dan Coast, a Fairfax County biology teacher, once told me the shock of seeing how much better the equipment was at Mount Vernon High School than what was available at his old district, Charles County. He also had to make a difficult adjustment to Fairfax's much high standards for instruction and student achievement, but he was glad he did.
So keep yelling, Fairfax parents. You don't have a true perspective, but it is healthy to vent. You are reminding everyone of what a great school district you have, and how nobody is ever going to be able to take that away from you. That's good. America is full of districts that could use more parents like you.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| January 12, 2010; 12:18 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: school budget cuts; Fairfax County budget cuts; Jack Dale; Challenge Index; class size
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