Janie Strauss has had to campaign only a couple of times in her 18 years as the Dranesville representative on the Fairfax County School Board.
But this year, Louise Epstein is is running aggressively for her seat, and Strauss says that her own campaigning efforts have had to become more aggressive, as well, than before.
On Nov. 8, voters will decide which candidate will join the 12-member board.
Strauss, currently the chairman of the board, has a nine-year background as a classroom educator that preceded her work in education advocacy. She was president of the County Council of PTAs before taking a position on the School Board in 1991. She is the international chair of Cappies – a program which her husband, Bill Strauss, co-founded in 1999 that promotes high school student involvement in theater and journalism.
Epstein, after graduating from Harvard Law School, practiced law for 15 years before becoming a full-time mother and volunteer. She has held a number of positions serving Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), including a term as PTSA president at Thomas Jefferson High.
She is the vice president of FairGrade, an organization which she co-founded that is critical of FCPS grading policies and their impact on college-bound students. The priorities of the organization can be seen in Epstein’s campaign through its emphasis on maintaining and supporting curriculum options for honors students.
Both Strauss and Epstein are mothers of children who graduated from the FCPS system. Strauss’ four children graduated the system, and her eldest grandchild will start kindergarten next year. All of Epstein’s three daughters were educated in Fairfax County Schools, and two recently graduated Thomas Jefferson High.
During her time on the School Board, Strauss has been involved in initiatives focused on bringing technology into the classroom and finding ways to combine online and in-class learning. She was on a task force charged with envisioning the Thomas Jefferson High renovation, a school which she hopes will become a widely recognized research center with these advancements.
Earlier in her tenure, she was involved with putting together the technical education program in Fairfax County schools.
In an interview with the News-Press, she spoke of her support in her School Board role of weighted staffing for children who need additional assistance and giving educators time to work in professional learning communities.
In press releases obtained from Epstein’s website, the candidate is critical of Strauss’ voting record, saying she votes against the interests of her Dranesville District constituency “and works behind the scenes to support the Superintendent.”
“I want to change the way we do business, by making sure that there is more honesty, transparency and accountability in the way that decisions are made, so that our fine public schools live up to their national reputation,” Epstein said in remarks to the News-Press.
Strauss, formerly an at-large school board member, supports providing for children who need assistance in the Fairfax County schools, like those in poverty and those who speak English as a second language.
The candidates in the non-partisan race are campaigning on separate priorities, as emphasized in their campaign literature, but their plans for a term on the School Board do intersect on one issue of particular importance to parents: ballooning class sizes.
“As we recover from the recession, my first objective is to help to strategically lower some of the larger class sizes,” Strauss said. “I have a plan to be able to do that, even within the budget.”
Epstein lays blame for the large class sizes on Strauss in a press release on her website, and calls for “balanced class sizes” and “fair distribution of county resources” on her campaign website.
Considering the challenges a tough economy has posed to Fairfax County, school budgets are under increased scrutiny.
Strauss was recently praised by The Washington Post in its candidate endorsements for her “steady hand during difficult budget times” as the School Board chair. For Strauss, a quality school system can even strengthen the economy by encouraging business growth in the area and boosting real estate values. Strauss has also been endorsed by the News-Press.
Epstein, who has been endorsed by some Fairfax County education groups like the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, is campaigning on refocusing funding allocations to prioritize students and teachers before administrators when looking at the budget.
“Our public schools need to see more resources in the classroom and fewer resources spent on bureaucrats and their pet projects, such as the expensive eCART database,” Epstein told the News-Press, referring to the Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool program schools use to gauge student ability in twice-a-year testing. “Changing FCPS priorities to shift resources to the classroom will require strong leadership by a new School Board.”
For Strauss, another term on the School Board means a chance to enter the technological frontier and bring new forms of education into Fairfax County schools.
“It’s an exciting time to be an educator,” Strauss said, “exciting, and daunting, but it’s exciting.”
Epstein hopes to use a term on the board to speak for those served by Fairfax County schools who she says aren’t represented under the current administration.
“If elected, I will work to ensure that teachers, parents and School Board members have timely access to complete and accurate information about the pros and cons of proposals on class sizes, curriculum, discipline policies and other issues where people have been stonewalled,” Epstein said. “This type of open process will result in better decisions and more public acceptance.”