Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Falls Church City Schools: Blessing or Burden?

It is no secret that the City of Falls Church was founded 61 years ago in large part because the community was concerned that our educational needs were not being met by the huge Fairfax County school system. Since that time it has been a given that the City schools are the first priority of our community and that the excellence of our school division plays an important role in the health of the City’s economy.

In research conducted by the City as a part of our recent branding exercise, the number one thing both residents and non-residents agreed on is that Falls Church is known first and foremost for its excellent school system.

Given this backdrop, it is alarming and disappointing to me to witness a growing undercurrent in our Little City that questions these ideas and the viability of our independent school division.

Here’s the scuttlebutt I am hearing and some facts in response.

The comment I am hearing most often is that the City of Falls Church can no longer afford the luxury of a small, independent school system; that we spend too much of our budget on the schools and should “outsource” them to Fairfax County. Aside from the “back to the future” nature of this idea, it’s not clear that asking Fairfax County to run our schools will require less of our budget than running them ourselves.

Let’s look at the data.

Over the past five years, the City of Falls Church has allocated an average of 46.1% of its budget to the schools while Fairfax County has allocated 53% (Source: Washington Area Boards of Education; includes debt service). In spite of the fact that we don’t benefit from Fairfax County’s economies of scale, and that we offer every child opportunities like full-day kindergarten, foreign language K-12, and our nationally renowned IB program, we manage to run our schools with a significantly smaller percentage of our operating budget than our neighbor.

Falls Church citizens are getting a lot of value for their tax dollars.

Another comment I hear around town is that the schools have not “suffered enough” during the past few years as we have all weathered the recession together.

I’m not sure what constitutes “enough” suffering, but our school division has tightened its belt significantly.

I think the question is not whether we can afford to have an independent school system here in Falls Church, but whether we can afford not to.

Let’s look at the data.

Over the past three budget years, student enrollment has increased by 4.6% while the City transfer to the schools has declined by 6.2% and state and federal funding have also decreased markedly. Literally dozens of staff positions have been cut or reduced, materials and technology budgets have been sliced, and student fees have been added or increased.

Last year alone, the School Board cut the City’s portion of its operating budget by a record- breaking 4.8%, while education spending by Fairfax County was down only 0.8% (Source: FairfaxTimes.com). In Arlington County spending actually rose by 0.8% (Source: Arlingtonva.us).

I think our schools are doing their part.

So, what results are we getting when compared with our neighbors? What is the return on this investment?

Let’s look again at the data.

The Falls Church City School division has both the highest graduation rate and confers the highest percent of advanced studies diplomas in Virginia. Our challenge index ranking is higher than any high school in Fairfax County and has been for years (Source: Washington Post; The Washington Post Challenge Index measures a public high school’s effort to challenge all of its students). Our students’ average SAT scores are more than 100 points higher than any school district in our area and more than 200 points higher than the average in the state (Sources: Fccps.org and Fcps.edu) and we have more than our “fair share” of National Merit Semifinalists. Our Odyssey of the Mind, Robotics, and Scholastic Bowl teams are serial powerhouses at the state, regional, and national levels. I could go on (I haven’t even mentioned our award-winning athletics program!) but I hope you see my point.

To me the jury is in. I think the question is not whether we can afford to have an independent school system here in Falls Church, but whether we can afford not to.

Instead of talking about ‘outsourcing’ our schools, we should be talking about how to work together to strengthen our schools and, as a result, strengthen our Little City.