Hell hath no fury like a parent rezoned out of a cherished public school.
Hence we read of the "civil war" being waged by parents in Reston who would like to tar and feather a school board member for rejecting their demands in a boundary decision. In Arlington, a caustic debate has unfolded over the prospect of altering boundaries to relieve school crowding, even though no specific changes have been proposed.
Parents angrily storm public hearings because boundary changes tug at two things closest to their hearts: their children and their homes. But I would add to this list of what is precious two other items: a good school system and a civil approach to public discourse. As a PTA grunt who has observed many parents at war over boundaries, I have some suggestions about how to work the system while lowering the risk of heart attack.
Most parents today are competitive. They see a quality school as a scarce commodity to be won through shrewd planning, hard work and networking. They buy their homes strategically in a chosen school zone and take an "I want the best" consumer approach. They have nothing but their own desires in mind.
School officials, by contrast, try to serve all families regardless of income, parental education levels or language. They grasp socioeconomic tensions and such human tendencies as snobbery, but in their public vocabulary they never acknowledge that School A is superior to School B.
They want parents to pitch in democratically to create the best system for all.
When officials handle boundary changes badly, they can be guilty of poor planning and arrogant decision-making with too little public input. But when parents handle boundary changes badly, they hurl insults at politicians and claim that their negative behavior is proof of their love for their children.
I'd like to let these parents in on a secret: They reveal themselves to seasoned school officials because of their lack of knowledge of how boundary policy is made. Anyone who wades into the rezoning muck quickly learns that revising the map is like solving Rubik's Cube. Considerations include everything from budgets, to land-use requirements, to pedagogical research on school size, to safety concerns, to race relations, to fear of crime, to neighborhood traditions.
Of course, in the long run, the onus is on school leaders to improve all schools so that no parent is forced to shift from a good school to a bad one. But school comparisons are often relative. Parents fighting to go to School A might do well to visit adjacent neighborhoods, where they may encounter a parallel universe of parents who are fighting with equal passion to get their children into the very school that parents from School A have spurned.
I can offer some good news for my angry parental peers. If you do your homework on facts and procedures, officials will welcome your opinions, and you might surprise yourself by getting what you want.
Everyone agrees that rezoning is disruptive. But officials would be remiss in their stewardship of taxpayer dollars if they didn't review these human-drawn boundaries regularly to update them for demographic changes. The realistic goal is not pleasing everyone, but pleasing the greatest number allowed by a fair procedure and policy.
As one local school official recently told me: "You hear parents say that their child doesn't adjust well to change. In actuality, most kids adjust in a few weeks. It's the parents who often don't."