I was grateful to see Joy Pullmann’s recent article highlighting the Fairfax County Public School system’s disastrous attempt at implementing distance learning. FCPS is an enormous school system, charged with educating nearly 190,000 children across 196 schools. Its failure has widespread consequences, and its leadership should be held to account. I feel strongly about this because two of my children are elementary students in Fairfax County, Virginia.
FCPS’s budget this year is $3 billion, a shocking number when you consider the entire state of Delaware has an operating budget of $4.5 billion. We spend roughly $16,000 per student, far higher than the national average of about $12,000 per student. In 2019, we ranked eighth-highest in the nation in education spending per student. Suffice it to say, we have money.
The county has a $2.6 million annual contract with Blackboard, the failed online platform intended to be used for distance learning, including an additional $150,000 per month for extra distance learning-related work. (It remains unclear how much Blackboard is continuing to be paid.) FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand and school board members have tried to shift blame, while encouraging parents that they will be “vigilant” about finding solutions to problems and “will not rest” until they’re fixed. The real problem, however, is their excessive spending and mismanagement.
As Pullmann noted, following multiple failed attempts at launching distance learning and in keeping with FCPS’s spendthrift ways, last week Brabrand announced two initiatives aimed at righting this sinking ship. In an email, he said he initiated “a comprehensive, outside review of the distance learning rollout” by retaining “Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, a law firm with expertise in information technology and cybersecurity,” and that FCPS “anticipate[s] a report from them in the next few weeks to guide our continued work in distance learning.” Given that only about six weeks remain until the scheduled end of the school year, it seems this huge, multi-national law firm will likely give us suggestions just in time not to use them.
Brabrand also announced “the Superintendent’s Technology Advisory Council with three co-chairs: Bobbie Kilberg, President and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council; Andrew Ko, Managing Director of Global Education at Amazon Web Services; and Amy Gilliland, President of General Dynamics IT” will provide distance learning “guidance” and “ongoing support.”
While I appreciate the willingness of these private-sector executives to assist our struggling school board, the efforts — akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — are simply more examples of FCPS trying to spend its way out of a problem while masking the real issues.
The flagrant spending is particularly insulting because at the beginning of this school year, FCPS used faulty data to cut funding for teachers at our children’s school, eliminating a full-time position, which resulted in class sizes swelling to nearly 30 students in first-grade classrooms. After parents pursued the issue with the school board, the funding was restored — but too late to recruit, hire a teacher, and rearrange the classes.
Thus, the school leadership decided, with parents’ support, to hire an instructional assistant to help teachers across all four first-grade classrooms. Our teachers, including my daughter’s, have risen to the occasion in admirable ways, but it is in nobody’s best interest, student or teacher, to have nearly 30 kids in a classroom. It is the hallmark of a mismanaged, out-of-touch bureaucracy to make lazy staff cuts instead of doing the harder work of assessing costs and trimming waste.
FCPS would do well to encourage innovation and creativity, particularly in light of its own failure to implement a coherent distance learning program. Sadly, the opposite has been the case in our experience.
My son’s teacher had effectively used alternative, secure platforms to connect with her students, even attempting to avoid Blackboard’s clogged system by meeting earlier than the start of our regularly scheduled school day. But she was told to stop.
Why? Because FCPS is a bloated system that brings everyone down to the lowest common denominator instead of meeting new challenges with flexibility. We could be sharing best practices and resources across classes and schools; instead we are waiting for a Blackboard software update that has yet to materialize.
Last week, Maribeth Luftglass, the assistant superintendent of the FCPS Department of Information Technology, resigned from her position. It’s time for Brabrand and all the school board members to follow suit.
The challenges of this pandemic will not end with this school year, or even when our kids return to school in the fall. We have 190,000 children who have missed almost a third of a school year, and Fairfax County Public Schools must make significant decisions about how to address this education gap.
Brabrand and the school board are clearly incapable of leading through this challenge. Their performance is an embarrassment, and our children would all be better served by new leadership.