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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.

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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Kindergarten *SHOULD* be a half-day program for middle-class & affluent kids. I can understand having it for schools serving disadvantaged kids. But how many of those are in Fairfax County? Our tax money should not be going towards subsidizing daycare for well-to-do families. If a family wants full-day kindergarten, they should foot the bill themselves...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 12, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

So true, Jay! I'm one of those FCPS teachers and I know quite well how much better we have it. I would hate to see full-day kindergarten cut back (even in middle-class and affluent schools). But I hate to see cuts at all. I've got tons of ideas of many more fabulous ways we could spend money. But we go through flush times and, sadly, times that are not so flush. We'll survive.

Posted by: Jenny04 | January 12, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

---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.---

"The other school districts" probably refers to Loudoun County, City of Falls Church, and Arlington, all of which are rated higher than or equal to Fairfax per the 2008 Challenge Index. Is she really exaggerating that much, if at all?

My family moved to Fairfax for its foreign language partial immersion programs. We know many families who will move out of Fairfax if FCPS gets rid of partial immersion. For the same price, our families could buy nicer, newer houses in Loudoun and our kids would still attend good schools.

---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.---

Local school districts have been funding and forcing AP/IB test participation to boost Challenge Index ratings. However, FCPS budget-funded AP/IB tests are on the chopping block. Students will most likely take fewer tests when tests are no longer "free."

It is wrong that schools ever used taxpayer funds to cover AP/IB testing for students from upper and middle class homes. (I do support subsidizing up to four tests per student for students from families that qualify for free or reduced price lunch.) Also, schools should not require students to take AP/IB tests. That should be left to parents and families students to decide.

Posted by: obamamama31 | January 13, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Jay, your commentary is confusing. Fairfax supports the rest of the state and sets an example internationally for a public school system.

Why should one of the richest counties in the country let its standards slide just because of a downturn in the economy. This is Fairfax, yes we may be spoiled, but gosh darn it our kids deserve it. Music programs and full day K are essential, not optional to a top notch school system. We spend far less per student than any other local school system in the area and have better results. It's high time our school system received the funding it deserves, regardless of the economic "crisis".

Posted by: vanillamoose9400 | January 14, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

By the logic exhibited in this column, the citizens of the U.S. shouldn't complain if their quality of life slides a bit lower. After all, it's still better than the vast majority of the rest of the world.

Posted by: -SBS- | January 14, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

To Jay: Do you say these things just to incite a negative response or do you actually believe them? I am so truly sick of your sanctimonious attitude toward schools, school district policies, and the efforts of the community to protect years of effort to establish a world-class education system.

Why don't you go visit 1/3 of the Kindergarten classrooms and collect data on which kids (or just how many) you observe in those classrooms that don't need to be there? Don't ask how much money their parents make, or how high a degree they hold. Why don't you talk to 30 or 50 teachers from across the county and establish a more reasonable sample of, albeit ancectdotal, information than just chatting with someone across your own pristine picket fence.

To Parents: Never give up. You don't need Jay Matthew's approval to fight a fight that you know is right.

There are so many issues that deserve our fair, unbiased and complete attention. Stop stirring up trouble, Jay, and make yourself useful.

Posted by: kgculbertson | January 15, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I too have “been around a bit” and have seen schools far worse than Fairfax and few better. Are you saying that it is Ok to cut what makes this world class schools system great? We should be spending more on education never less. I have seen the worst and I have seen the best. Why should we say it is OK to cut the best? Yes, Fairfax parents –keep yelling – because our kids deserve the best – and all kids do.

Posted by: uvadr | January 15, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Let's see. Pretend I'm writing in from the future (as in the very near future or next year). The budget shrinks. Parents and teachers use computer and online technology to educate our children (already available). Parents who are worried about their property values or buy houses with prices linked to school boundaries or immersion programs realize there are new choices. They sell their expensive home in Fairfax and move to a much nicer, less expensive home as their children are not stuck physically or mentally in a school boundary. With the money they save in rent or house payments alone, they live within their means (a good idea for FCPS too). Perhaps they try language immersion by living in that country and still maintain their online education. Perhaps we could really start to think outside the box and boundary lines. Space…the final frontier. LOL

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | January 15, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I have participated in a couple of the Fairfax County budget events and the FCPS information sessions. And I must say, this does not sound like a "marginal budget cut" to me. The teachers have not given a pay raise in 3 years and over 800 lost there jobs last year. This year is going to be worse. And now FCPS is faced with cutting programs that took years to get established.

I am a monolingual person and do not have a deep appreciation for art or music. I did not get the opportunity to attend such a diverse and quality school as Fairfax County (Although I think it was an excellent school for the rural South). But I don't want my children to “enjoy” the same shortcomings I have. I want them to be better than I am. Removing world language, band, string instruments, full day kindergarten, culture, etc will not be equipping our children for the future. And it is not only the FCPS that has to cut expenses, the Parks, Libraries, Police, Fire Departments, Rec Centers, etc will also need to cut expenses. I wish I had an answer on how to solve the problem and make everybody happy, but I don't. I don't envy the Board of Supervisors, they have hard choices.. do we cut the schools, the parks, the libraries, the police, etc and how much ?

Fairfax County Public Schools budget since 2001 is listed at

Posted by: hanelinehome | January 15, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

Why don't we cut Gatehouse? The FCPS main administration office. Or sell tickets for a tour? It is lovely building. Drive up. The lighting system in the parking will guide you to the first available open parking spot. Then enter the quiet, smooth elevators. Arrive at the beautiful lobby that would rival or surpass most corporations or expensive law offices. Proceed to different floors with their own empty lobby-type spaces. It goes on and on.

Fairfax parents -- Is it that there isn't enough money? Or is it that we need the money to get to the children? And their teachers? Ask for FairSchools.

Visit Gatehouse I. My visit changed my perceptions. It is worth the trip and the thinking.

Jay, have you been there? What did you think? There is a cafeteria off the lobby and a gym. Enjoy.

Posted by: ShirleyBridges | January 15, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

I have been to Gatehouse.. It is a nice building; does not seem too large considering the size of the school system it is responsible for. But if we gripe about Gatehouse, lets not forget the new Faixfax County Government Center (both started before the recession), and the remodeling of the state capital (started last year).

Posted by: hanelinehome | January 18, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem is that as much as people want to deny it, the ad valorem tax rate in Fairfax is simply too low. For FY 2010, the rate is $1.04. In order to pay for the services that are expected of people in Fairfax, we should probably be paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50 to $1.60 with exemptions for people over 65 or disabled.

Posted by: Rob63 | January 20, 2010 12:52 AM | Report abuse

Jay how dare you say teachers will stay... it is that attitued that is not allowing us to live in the county that we teach in. I am originally from Western Pennsylvania, where teachers make 122% of the median family income. Fairfax county teachers make 54%. Maybe it is time for residents to return the tax cut they were given when their house values were over inflated. That would solve the issue. I challenge you to walk to a Fairfax County high school parking lot - student and teacher - and tell me which is which. If kids are able to drive luxury cars to school, wear uug boots and have multiple I-phones and I-touches, residents are not suffering. I do not want to hear that they cannot affort a tax increase. We as teachers should suffer while they contiune to live their lavish lives. Yes, the SCHOOLS have the best of everything - that is for the students. However, I am forced to work 3 jobs so that I can LIVE in Northern Virginia. Enough is enough - good teachers come with a price too - its time to pay up.

Here is a link to the article that I had published in the Fairfax Connection regarding this issue.

Posted by: tdemharter | January 20, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

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