The letter told of a school system in financial peril.
Cash-strapped Fairfax County Public Schools, the letter read, encountered recent budget cuts that made buying everyday supplies difficult. As such, the school board had decreed that all students would pay 5 cents for each piece of paper given to them, the letter purportedly sent from Laurel Ridge Elementary School continued, and the policy would go into effect immediately.
“The amount paid per copy is subject to increase if the current economic situation does not improve,” it stated. “Thank you to everyone for your contribution to this very serious and immediate issue that we are facing as a school system.”
Pretty bleak, right?
Only, it wasn’t true. The school board hadn’t voted to levy a fee on paper. There would be no “paper account” which, like a lunch account, could be loaded with money, as the letter stated.
Written with school district letterhead, the missive briefly sowed confusion among some parents and local officials, causing a stir on social media earlier this week.
The source of the misunderstanding was a lesson on the Stamp Act gone awry. Teachers at the Northern Virginia school had sent the letter, part of a school-district-provided lesson plan, to the homes of Laurel Ridge fourth-grade students as part of a simulation.
Parents were sent a message in mid-December informing them the faux letter would be sent when students returned to school from winter break. That warning, it appeared, may have been lost in the holiday hubbub.
“Though this lesson was well-intended, we recognize that the fictitious letter has caused unnecessary confusion for community members,” schools spokesman John Torre said in an email. “The lesson and related resources have been removed.”
Lynn Smith, president of Laurel Ridge’s PTA, said she heard from a small number of parents on Facebook who had questions about the letter.
The students, Smith said, were expected to react to the 5-cent fee after reading the letter and draw a connection to how colonists would have felt when the Stamp Act — a tax on paper imposed by the British on American colonists — was levied on them.
“It’s a really great lesson,” said Smith, whose fourth-grade son received the letter. “It really was able to bring that lesson home.”
Those fooled by the letter may not have been without reason. Fairfax has grappled in the past decade to keep pace with rising service demands in an economy still bruised by the recession and billions of dollars in cuts to federal spending.
At the start of the current school year, the school system grappled with $50 million in budget cuts. The school board voted to raise class sizes by an average of about half a student per class, was forced to scale back plans for teacher pay raises and imposed a $50 fee on student athletes.
Jane Strauss, the school board chairwoman, said students are encouraged to apply modern knowledge to make sense of history, which the Stamp Act lesson accomplished.
“That is a very legitimate teaching technique,” Strauss said.
But, she added, “it can’t look that real.”