Commentary: A call to arms for our county’s parents

In front of our County’s Old Courthouse stands both a statue and a bust of Peter Muhlenberg. A clergyman, soldier and legislator, Muhlenberg is most remembered for his famous call to arms on Jan, 21, 1776, in which he rallied his fellow Virginians to the defense of a nation about to be born.

Today, the school in Woodstock that bears his name, and nine others like it around the county, are under an attack of sorts. It falls to our county’s parents to defend them – not with bullets, but with ballots.

There is a movement in our county that comes out of the national tea party movement. Perhaps they are angry with certain national and cultural developments – frustration some of us may share – but they are taking that anger out on local public policy, where it does not belong. Education spending in our county suffered during the recent recession, and now as our economy begins to recover, that movement stands opposed to additional investment in education.

The people behind the movement argue that our underfunded schools are actually overfunded; that our underpaid teachers (many of whom have already left us for better-paying districts) are overpaid; that our relatively lean administration is actually fat, and, remarkably that W.W. Robinson and Sandy Hook Elementary aren’t really crowded. Parents who spend any time in our schools know that these arguments are wrong, and it is time to call out the people who are making them.

According to the Virginia Department of Education’s superintendent’s report, per-pupil spending in Shenandoah County is down 13 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2007. Shenandoah County spends $750 less per-pupil, per-year than the average jurisdiction in our region, and $1750 less than the
average in our state. Upon graduation, our children will be forced to compete, in college and in the workforce, with graduates of schools in other counties that  invest far more in their education.

Over time, education spending has a real impact on economic growth and quality of life in a region.

Time and again we have heard it from people in local government: when businesses are thinking of locating in Shenandoah County, one of the first things they ask about is the quality of the schools.

Today, our schools are still pretty good because of the investments made in the past, but that quality will not hold up if we don’t continue that investment.

Parents should not view the upcoming elections for Board of Supervisors and School Board as six discrete contests, each between two or more candidates. These elections represent a clash between two competing views for the future of our county: one which is angry, defensive and backward-looking, and one which is expansive and forward-looking, and which invests in our kids. The outcome of that struggle will have far-reaching consequences for our kids and our county.

Parents owe it to their children to learn about the issues and the candidates; to register and vote, and to teach by example the importance of civic engagement in a democracy. Shenandoah County Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools (PASS) exists to inform, organize and mobilize parents to advocate for their
children’s education, and to provide them with a voice before local government and in the media.

More than 700 parents and others follow PASS on Facebook and hundreds more have signed up on our website. In the day-to-day rush that is parenting, many of us have not given the attention that we should to local education policy. If I were to reduce PASS’ messaging to five simple words, it would be these: “We are paying attention now!”

Muhlenberg taught us that some things are worth fighting for. For parents, the education of their children should be high on that list.

Dan Walsh, president, Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools