Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Striving to Sustain Our City’s Historic Commitment to Public Education

Last Saturday night I was in the company of some folks whose memories of Falls Church go a pretty good ways back. The event was the 35th reunion of the George Mason High School Class of 1975. I wasn’t living here then – I’m a newcomer by comparison, having moved into the City in 1985. My spouse, Leslie, is the Mustang alum, one of three DeLong sisters who went all the way through the City schools.

You know how it is being at someone else’s reunion: When you first walk in the door, the people who really belong there act like they know you, because they think maybe you’re a long-lost classmate whose looks have changed a lot since back in the day. They chuckle in relief when they find out they’re not supposed to remember you, because you’ve married into the gathering.

For those who graduated from Mason in 1975, the class was small enough that everybody pretty much knew everybody. Here’s a quiz: Compared to the ’75ers, how many more graduates did Mason’s Class of 2010 have?

That’s a trick question: The Class of ’75 was actually larger, with nearly 170 students, compared to the 161 who graduated in June. In 1965, when my neighbor graduated from Mason, he had almost 200 classmates.

For most of the years that my children have been going through the Falls Church schools – both started at Mt. Daniel kindergarten; my son is a rising senior, my daughter graduated in 2008 – I’ve heard a good bit of anxiety expressed in the community, on City Council, and sometimes even on the School Board, that our student population is increasing, that our school system is at risk of becoming too large.

I think it’s worth noting that the City began building its reputation for providing quality public education with a “small school” feel at a time when we actually had more students in the system than we do today.

Yes, I know it is more expensive to educate each student today than it was a generation ago. We offer more specialized instruction now. New state and federal mandates add cost. We are vying for teaching talent with outlying jurisdictions that have cheaper housing, so we must pay our teachers more. And I know that, on occasion, we’ve been a little pinched for space at either Mt. Daniel or Thomas Jefferson, because one of the lower grades had a bump-up in numbers.

But because of prudent facilities expansion over the years at Mt. Daniel and TJ, and construction of the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, there is not a systemwide overcrowding crisis.

The crisis we are facing is a crisis of confidence that we can sustain Falls Church’s tradition of civic commitment to public education. Anyone reading the City’s most popular online discussion boards knows that there are persistent posters who argue that Falls Church has a “boutique” school system with such poor economies of scale that we simply can’t afford it any more. Their prescription is that we try to meld with Arlington or Fairfax, which, they say, would give us just-fine schools for a lot less taxpayer money.

It’s appealing to imagine that only a vocal minority espouse this line of thinking. But in a political environment marked by Massive Indifference – where only one in four voters participated in our recent municipal election, and no candidate for City Council won even 1,000 votes – the impact of an engaged and vocal minority can be substantial.

Why worry? you say. All the candidates who ran for Council and School Board said warm and fuzzy things about our schools. Things will work out OK. They always have.

You can play those odds if you want. But we should all be aware that, because of continuing weakness in the national economy that saps our local revenues, Mayor Baroukh and the new Council will face pressures that could make last year’s City and schools budget battles look tame.

There is already a straw in that wind: the suggestion put forward recently by the chair of the City’s Long-Range Financial Planning Working Group that we should consider changing the Charter to allow the City to automatically reclaim unused school system funds at the end of a fiscal year. Past practice has been for the schools to treat such funds as a kind of emergency reserve, carrying them over into the next fiscal year. But now the City needs that money. Needs it bad.

A vigorous civic debate about financial management policies, spending priorities, and levels of taxation is healthy for democracy in the Little City. And those who question whether we can afford our school system are surely entitled to make their case.

It would, however, be a healthier debate if we could see the emergence of a countervailing force of engaged citizens who are committed to maintaining full local control of our schools; who welcome families with children into our City and regard more kids in our schools as a sign of civic health, a return to the “good old days”; and – this is absolutely vital – citizens who support the sustained economic redevelopment that Falls Church needs to generate new revenues sufficient to pay for excellent public education in our community.