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Fairfax County parents in big fight to save school programs

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; B01

It's like you worked all your life to get that lakeside retirement home, then the lake started to dry up.

Or you sacrificed to get the fab condo in a sweet part of town, then your favorite restaurants and shops all went dark.

For lots of people, the most compelling reason to live in Fairfax County isn't the fetching split-level architecture or the endless supply of Chick-fil-A locations.

It's all about the schools.

And now that some of the primo programs that make the county's public schools world-class are on the chopping block, it makes sense that the howls of parental protest are as loud as the jetliners taking off from Dulles International Airport.

Of course, Fairfax County is not alone in tough financial times. Across the region and the country, local governments are having to make deep cuts like they never had before.

In the District and Prince George's and Montgomery counties, schools have plans to possibly furlough employees, slash jobs and increase class sizes.

Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale proposed to grow class sizes and ditch teachers, too, as a way to save. But then he went on to talk about the very programs that parents live for, the kinds of things real estate agents trying to move a particularly undistinguished rancher will memorize.

In this round of budget cuts, the county might have to end foreign language programs in elementary schools, cut the strings to some music classes, put summer school on ice, pull back on full-day kindergarten and eliminate freshman sports. The size and scope of the cuts are unprecedented for the 173,000-student school system, and more than $100 million in savings is going to be painful no matter where the ax falls.

"If this happens, we'll be just like all the other school districts," said Tina Meek, a Fairfax mom who is extreme in her reasons to live in the area.

She is among the thousands of middle class parents in Fairfax who don't live in cool neighborhoods or especially great houses. Many endure awful commutes so their kids can get a great education at a public school.

"It's all about the quality of our schools. It is an important part of who we are," said Marybeth Haneline, who chose to move to Herndon 14 years ago partly because of the excellent schools in the area. She is now fighting for the schools to remain committed to their plan for full-day kindergarten everywhere.

It's hard to imagine a school district that boasts the best high school in America and Japanese immersion for first-graders is about to hack away at the very essential experience of kindergarten.

Meek -- whose whole life is arranged around that vulnerable Japanese program at Fox Mill Elementary -- gives an even clearer picture of what folks are willing to go through to be part of these schools.

She and her husband are from Seattle. All of their family -- everyone from grandpa to second cousins -- live there.

"The only reason we're staying here is the school. That's it. No doubt," she told me.

Her mom, who like any grandmother has endlessly pestered her daughter to move back home, visited the school once and couldn't help being impressed.

"Ah, I see. Yes, this is good," she told her daughter when she realized how much her granddaughters, 11 and 7, were learning there.

After years in the military and living all over the world, Meek and her husband had the whole country to chose from when he left the armed forces and entered the private sector.

"I had my dream house -- two-car garage, colonial, cul-de-sac, four bedrooms. And we could get all that. But it wouldn't be in Fairfax," Meek said. "My little list of requirements for a home was dwindling as we looked at the schools in Fairfax and knew that's where we wanted the kids to go."

So they got a one-car garage. The house is a split level. No cul-de-sac.

But with her daughters thriving, she stopped looking longingly at the real estate listings in other counties.

Now that those programs face cuts, Meek and thousands of parents like her are mobilizing to lobby politicians, testify in hearings and force lawmakers to treat their schools not as one of the routine government line-items but as a precious resource that is the underpinning for the region's economy.

"Even if you don't have children, your real estate values are tied to the quality of these schools. That's a message we want to get out there," Meek said.

So there is an online petition to save the band program, a petition to save the libraries, a Facebook group to preserve full-day kindergarten, and parents groups and chats and meetings that have all erupted in the past week. They're armed with talking points, scheduled testimonials on their educational journeys and community connections that are not to be underestimated.

They aren't willing to let their Lexus school system get downgraded to Camry status. But that's going to be a tough battle to win when lots of other school systems are running on fumes.

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