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Opinion In Fairfax County, parents are taking back the power

A social distancing sign at Bucknell Elementary School in Alexandria in February. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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A battle has been brewing in the school districts around our nation’s biggest cities for the past year. On one side are parents who saw incompetent school boards and administrators harming children by ignoring science and keeping children locked out of schools where they suffered emotionally, physically and mentally. On the other side are the school board members, superintendents and their union benefactors who saw the parents as a nuisance or uninformed rubes who should have little say in the education of their children.

This week, parents in Fairfax County are taking the first step toward winning that battle. Well more than 5,000 signatures have been collected and filed to recall Fairfax school board member Elaine Tholen. Tholen is believed to be the first elected official in the United States to have a recall filed amid the school closure debate. Petitions for equally incompetent Abrar Omeish and Laura Cohen are not far behind.

Parents are taking their schools back, starting now.

The recall petition against Tholen makes the case that she neglected her duty and misused her office and that her incompetence in the performance of duties had a material adverse effect. I don’t think anyone can argue about the material adverse effect of prolonged school closures, at least not anyone who has seen what has happened to our children this year.

The petition relies on the opinions and warnings of the American Pediatric Association, the Fairfax County Health Department, the Virginia Department of Health and others that Tholen and her colleagues apparently ignored in favor of teacher union guidance that children should remain locked out of school buildings.

Tholen, her colleagues and embattled Superintendent Scott Brabrand created a year in which children with special needs did not get their legally obligated education services. Where children with autism got only 10 minutes a day of virtual connection with special education instructors. Where they kicked disabled children out of buildings so they could rent them to profitable tutoring programs, something for which the district is under federal investigation.

They created a year in which children’s mental health suffered perhaps worse than their grades, which also plummeted. Enrollment dropped by the thousands to the point that the district is now running a campaign begging families to return. Many will not. As districts across the nation opened safely five days a week in the fall, Fairfax became a national embarrassment and remained one into the spring when schools remained locked.

Brabrand announced this month he will only serve one more year. A Pyrrhic victory long overdue. He should not serve one more day. And neither should the school board members who are comfortably far from the next election day, which led parents to take on this recall mission.

Unions and the recalled members will attempt to chalk this up as partisan warfare. They would be lucky if that were the case. Frankly, it would be very difficult to even find 4,500 Republicans in Tholen’s small and incredibly progressive district. No, the people behind this aren’t campaign veterans, as I am. They’re moms and dads across the political spectrum who got fed up watching people make bad decision after bad decision that was harming their children.

It was moms and dads setting up shop in parking lots around the county in blistering February and sweltering June asking their community to support their children. It wasn’t a tough sell. Some progressives would whisper thank you for standing up to the unions. Some would shout it.

The groups that formed around the area were grass roots at its finest. Citizens angry with their representatives finding others like minded and growing organically. They began as “open schools” groups and are now permanent fixtures like the Fairfax County Parents Association, the Arlington Parents for Education, the Loudoun Parents for Education and likewise in surrounding Maryland and D.C. localities.

In truth, though they are nonpartisan, they are becoming single-issue voters from my vantage point. A truth that Virginia Democrats likely need to learn before November as the teachers unions roll in and throw millions of dollars at candidates such as Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe to protect their monopoly over the schools.

The effort from here is complicated. Virginia’s recall laws need serious reform. Rather than putting Tholen on a ballot for residents to have the final say, the petition goes to circuit court where a judge determines whether a recall trial is warranted. More than 4,500 people rose up, but one person now holds the power. That is a uniquely cushy system for corrupt politicians but not a good one for the citizens of the commonwealth.

Parents are tired of being viewed as third-class voices in the schools their children attend. Unions and bureaucracies crowd them out of the decision-making process. The Fairfax school board has even changed its rules to extremely limit public participation in meetings so it can hear even less from their voters. But no matter how hard it tries, parents won’t ever be silent again.

These are our schools. We fund them. We supply them. Our children attend them. The people who run them are accountable to citizens, not unions. And accountability begins now. Power to the parents.