Edgar B. Hatrick, who is retiring as superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools, packs items for the move from his office on June, 26, 2014, in Ashburn, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Outgoing Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III left all of this year’s high school graduates with a request that they become life-long advocates for public education.

“If you believe that the education you had will make a difference in your life, I want you to promise me that wherever you wind up living . . . you will look at the public schools and you will ask, ‘How can I help, so that the children have the same opportunities that I had?’ ” Hatrick said at graduation ceremonies across the county.

Hatrick, the Washington region’s longest-serving superintendent, is retiring Monday after 23 years in the top job and nearly a half-century with Loudoun schools, during which he oversaw a rise from their rural roots to a booming suburban district with more than 70,000 students. On Tuesday, Eric Williams, formerly superintendent of York County schools in Virginia’s Tidewater area, will take on the leadership role.

Hatrick, a graduate of Loudoun County High School, said he has been proud to lead a school system that has grown in quality and prominence while keeping pace with a booming population.

But as he leaves, he said he is concerned about the future of public education in Loudoun and across the country. Hatrick cited signs of strain, including partisan budget battles and the dismantling of academic and extracurricular programs, as well as the splintering of public school systems because of charter schools and voucher programs.

Hatrick, who was raised in Loudoun County, became superintendent in 1991, but he has been working in the county school system for more than 47 years. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

“If you believe, like [Thomas] Jefferson did, that in a democracy, people have to be educated, then there is no viable alternative to a public education system,” Hatrick said. “Leaders have got to start speaking out about what is right about public education and why it is fundamentally important to democracy.”

In two interviews with The Washington Post, Hatrick shared his perspective on how public education is changing. The following is adapted from those interviews.

Q: You began your career at a time when barriers began to come down in public education. What was that like?

A: I saw the integration of schools. I saw it in the area of race, and I saw it in special education. Many kids who couldn’t attend school before suddenly had access to school.

[Before 1978], there were kids who were mentally fine and cognitively fine, but because they happened to be in a wheelchair they were given homebound instruction. That was supposed to be equal to coming to school every day, but we all knew it wasn’t.

I’m sure it was [an answer to the prayers] of so many parents. It was also eye-opening to me as an educator because I got a chance to work with people who specialized in individualized instruction.

"For 56 years, Loudoun County Public Schools has been part of my life," said the outgoing superintendent. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

And frankly, that wasn’t the mode then, particularly among high school teachers. We taught subjects to children, not children subjects.

Now a lot of those methodologies are infused in general education, because we learned that what works well for some special-education kids works well for children in general.

Q: In what other ways have you seen teaching change during your career?

A: The teaching workforce has improved. It’s more diverse now, and people are entering teaching as a profession. There was a horrible thing that used to be said about teaching in the 1950s, which was that teaching is a women’s job and women were just doing it for “pin money.”

We as a society were all getting by on the cheap. It’s only when it became a proper profession that we started getting focused on salaries and benefits.

Q: What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment as superintendent?

A: If I have any claim to fame . . . it’s that we made a commitment 20 years ago to do growth at night and concentrate on improving the quality of education as our day job. We knew that we were going to be overwhelmed by growth and by just building enough schools and getting enough classrooms available.

The team of people that I have been blessed to work with really did have education of children as their first calling, whether they were the people in charge of construction or transportation or food service.

Q: What is your biggest regret?

A: I regret losing our foreign language program in elementary schools. I believe that offering is critical to kids living in a totally different world.

I also regret that our technology initiative got stalled. . . . The great promise of personal computers is the ability for teachers to individualize instruction without having to deliver that instruction in 20 ways in every class.

That’s why, to me, it’s so important that we make it possible for every child to have 24/7 access to a device that allows them to benefit from the power of technology.

Eight or nine years ago, we were like the bright star in terms of what should you be doing with technology in education. We got stalled here in Loudoun County with our technology initiatives. A lot of places are passing us by.

Q: You have clashed with the Board of Supervisors and School Board repeatedly over budget cuts in recent years, as overall per pupil spending has declined. How are the political dynamics changing?

A: If you look at Loudoun’s history, this is a community that has had a strong commitment to public education. It was here when I came to Loudoun as an eighth-grader, and it’s still here, but it’s battling right now.

That sense of community support for public education, I believe, is really engaged in a battle with folks who see taxes and tax rates as the be-all and end-all of what they do. . . .

When Virginia moved to elected school boards, the legislature said they are to be nonpartisan elections, but the parties got into endorsing candidates. So all of a sudden, you see this partisan political balance coming into school board leadership.

Now school board members are under great pressure to put their district first. . . . We have people who will say, ‘I was elected because people wanted me to reduce taxes.’

I think school board members have to be fiscally responsible, but that’s not the first calling of the school board. The first calling is to make sure that kids are getting the best education a community can afford to give them.

Q: How do you see these dynamics playing out nationwide?

A: Our politically polarized environment is affecting public education in general.

Public education has become much more expensive, make no mistake about it. It costs a lot more than in the 1950s, because harder-to-educate people are being educated. As a nation, in our heart of hearts, we do believe there are no throwaway children, but that belief has a consequence.

I think we as public educators have allowed this country to ignore all the things that impact children as we took responsibility for them.

It’s mind-boggling if you look at what was being expected of public schools and how it’s changed as you layer on everything from health services to food services. The list goes on and on and on.

We as educators have allowed that to happen, because we have been afraid to say, “Wait a minute, we can’t afford to do that ourselves.”

If you have a failing community, where the infrastructure of the community is crumbling, the school may be the last thing standing, but it will not stand forever.

Jim Barnes contributed to this report.

To read more excerpts from The Post’s interviews with Hatrick, visit here and here.