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Virginia’s public schools need to stay in their lane regarding student absences

Stephanie Lundquist-Arora is a contributor for the Washington Examiner, a mother in Fairfax County, Virginia, an author, and the Fairfax chapter leader of the Independent Women’s Network. This piece originally appeared on Washington Examiner.

This weekend, as we sat on the sidelines of our children’s lacrosse game, a mother told me about an incident at her son’s Fairfax County public school. When her mother, the student’s grandmother, went into his school late to sign in her grandson following his doctor’s appointment, the administrative assistant looked at her doubtingly and asked, “Are you sure he had a doctor’s appointment?”

Over the years, other parents have shared similar stories with me about the sanctimonious gatekeepers in the offices of our children’s public schools. Unfortunately, the invasive lines of questioning are codified in school policy to determine whether or not our reasons to excuse our own children from school are sufficient.

In December 2023, I received a notification from my son’s school that he had unexcused absences. I found this peculiar because I had excused him each time he was not in school. When I excuse my sons from school, I indicate “personal” — because it is. The reasons my sons are out of school are absolutely none of the district’s or the state’s business, as long as I am aware that they are not there.

A patient district administrator sympathetically explained to me at that time that the school was simply following district and state policy. Fairfax County Public Schools has a specific category for absences for which the parent excuses the student but does not provide a reason that he or she is missing called “unexcused locally defined.” Although it appears on students’ transcripts as “unexcused,” the policy is meant to allow students to make up their work and tests for that day.

The district administrator further informed me, to my surprise, that the “unexcused locally defined” category of absence is based on Virginia’s state policy. State law includes in its definition of an unexcused absence an absence in which “the parent provides a reason for the absence that is unacceptable to the school administration.”

According to Virginia state law, local school districts can decide that our children missing school for family vacations or important athletic events is unacceptable and that the absence is, therefore, unexcused. That sounds like a policy that a “parents matter” administration might want to revise.

On Dec. 15, 2023, I reached out to officials in the Virginia Department of Education, including the state’s superintendent of public instruction and the deputy superintendent of teaching and learning. I have yet to receive a response from them. I am confident that because we hear all the time that parents matter, the state administrators are looking into this issue — four months later.

As one Fairfax County high school administrator has pointed out to me, the policy provides a dysfunctional incentive structure. Parents are basically encouraged to lie and tell the school administrators that their children have an illness to ensure that their absences are excused. 

It should be enough when parents say their children will not be in school that day. With that notification, it is the parent’s right to excuse the absence and not the school’s domain to determine validity. We should not need to inform our public schools’ administrations or teachers about personal matters in our children’s or families’ lives — because it is simply none of their business.

Thomas Jefferson High School principal celebrates remedial math achievements

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia, and Harry Jackson, member of IWN. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner.

Last Friday, the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, Ann Bonitatibus, sent an email to the school’s families boasting that all of its freshmen are on track for algebra I proficiency by the end of the year.

But that’s not much of a brag, Bonitatibus. Let us tell you why.

Bonitatibus is a longtime cheerleader of racial balancing and an equity-based rather than merit-based admissions system at Fairfax County’s magnet school. On June 7, 2020, she sent an email to the school’s families lamenting that TJ does not “reflect the racial composition of [Fairfax County Public Schools].” As a result of Bonitatibus’s activism and a social justice-minded school board, TJ’s admissions policies changed significantly in 2021.

Last week, we explained that TJ’s new equity admissions policies that Bonitatibus supports (explicitly aimed to reduce the number of Asian Americans at the school) undermine the academic integrity of the school. They are comparable to a swim team selecting athletes who can’t swim and require life jackets at the expense of swimmers who are highly proficient in all four strokes.

In her email last week, Bonitatibus essentially admitted to families that the life jacket swimmers, TJ’s freshmen struggling in algebra I, haven’t learned to swim just yet — but that she hopes they will by the end of the year. She has made it quite public that not only are some of this year’s freshmen at TJ two years behind previous merit-based cohorts in math, but that the once flagship school for STEM education had to provide them with remedial “algebra mastery assignments through ALEKS, a digital resource that provides personalized learning.”

The principal’s email is alarming, particularly for a magnet school that prides itself on producing some of the nation’s most talented STEM graduates. Prior to TJ’s admission changes intended to “racially balance” the school, most entering students had completed honors geometry in eighth grade — and notably, honors algebra I in seventh grade. At that time, such remediation under a merit-based admissions system was not only unnecessary but laughable. 

Bonitatibus’s email proves that merit is dead in TJ admissions, and that there are likely better options for gifted education in Fairfax County — particularly in private schools.

But if parents seek for their children an education steeped in equity and social engineering, TJ is likely a great contender. Bonitatibus’s email, in addition to excusing mathematical ineptitudes, also touts the school’s gains in so-called social emotional learning indicators. In the last year, Bonitatibus explained, the SEL screener finds that TJ has made 4%-5% increases in students “reporting they have supportive relationships” and that they have “a positive sense of belonging.”

The celebration of these particular milestones cannot compensate for TJ’s academic shortcomings. Rather, these indicators have seemingly become a smoke screen diverting attention from declining academic standards. TJ has slipped from first to fifth in the national ranking this year, and will likely continue to decline as the last merit-based class graduates this June.

The school administration’s narrative, emphasizing SEL gains over academic excellence, does a disservice to students and parents alike. Parents, as stakeholders in their children’s education, are left to wonder about the direction in which the school is headed. And the focus on how students feel rather than on how they perform academically raises questions about the future competencies of graduates in a world that demands both emotional intelligence and academic excellence.

The Supreme Court passed on the opportunity to address this crisis in TJ and show the nation that individual capability matters more than group identity. Its decision not to hear the case Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board has undoubtedly left a profound sense of disappointment and emotional distress among many students, particularly those of Asian descent, who viewed this legal battle as a crucial fight against systemic biases and institutionalized racism in K-12 education.

Moving forward, given the population density in northern Virginia, there is certainly room for more than one magnet school, as is already the case in many school districts across the nation. Perhaps we should introduce two options for our students: a new, merit-based magnet school, and TJ as it currently stands – a deteriorating equity trap engaged in a social experiment at the expense of its students and its reputation. 

If we’re honest, we know without doubt which of the two schools would perform better.

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Arizona National School Choice Rally

Over 250 Arizonians gathered at the state capital today to send Governor Katie Hobbs a message: school choice isn’t going anywhere. Arizona is the model state for school choice, with over 73,000 kids using the program successfully. Governor Hobbs is actively seeking to displace these 73,000 students, because she believes educators know what is best for kids, not their parents. 

The IWN Phoenix, AZ Chapter joined the rally, sponsored by AZ Senator Jake Hoffman, to stand with families. Christy Narsi, Phoenix Chapter Chair said: “It is INJUSTICE to force our minority students into failing schools. It is INJUSTICE to force single moms to put their kids in schools that make every day harder, not better. This is why I fight for school choice and the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Families should be fighting for parental inclusion in education. Instead, Governor Hobbs wants to exclude parents from being able to educate their children the way they see fit”

“Opponents of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program and of school choice insist the public schools will lose money and start failing because of the program. Of course we know that’s not true, but let’s call a spade a spade. They are already failing. Over half of Arizona’s budget is going to K-12 education, yet Arizona ranks nearly dead last in the nation! Arizonian parents are educated enough to know that money is NOT the problem. It is our job to insist the money start showing up in our kids’ grades and in their self-confidence. We cast our vote through school choice by enrolling our kids in performing schools.”

Stacy Brown, IWN Phoenix, AZ Chapter Chair for Education Freedom and Vice President of Education for All AZ, said: “As school choice week kicks off, we celebrate here in Arizona at the Capitol with a rally. It was an incredible opportunity to gather together with legislators and other parents who have made it possible for our children to grow!”

Bella Ceballos-Viner emceed the rally. Bella is Founder and Executive Director of Padres Unidos AZ. Bella said: “Today was a good day to send the message that Latinos and African Americans are joining the fight for school choice. That school choice holds no racial boundaries.”

Randi Weingarten’s Meltdown Over School Choice And ‘Democracy’ Is Pure Projection

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia.

In 2023, 20 states expanded school choice options for America’s children. Perhaps these substantial legislative gains are what prompted Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to have a meltdown last month and argue that school choice “undermines democracy.” Weingarten gaslights the public because her quest to make failing public schools the only educational option for America’s children is truly what threatens self-government.

The founders of our nation agreed that an educated citizenry is essential to self-rule. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that the consent of the governed is only possible with an educated population. To that end, the founders advocated for a public education system in which the government funds the education of its young citizens.

According to our nation’s founders, the purpose of government-funded education is to provide our children with a quality education, not to preserve power for teachers unions. When traditional K-12 public education fails to properly educate our children, which is the case now, public dollars must follow the students, not the failing institutions. Given that a poorly educated citizenry arguably is not properly equipped to offer its consent, evidenced in part by the required citizenship test for newcomers, public education’s politicization and lower test scores and standards are harmful to our “democracy.”

Consequences of Weingarten’s Priorities

Weingarten used her platform to advocate for prolonged school closures during the pandemic. In April 2020, her union’s demands in order to “safely reopen America’s schools” included the forgiveness of teachers’ educational loan debt and the suspension of teacher performance evaluations — demands that had absolutely nothing to do with public health. Weingarten, who at that time enjoyed an annual income of $564,236, essentially held our schools hostage for more than a year to increase the power of teachers and her union.

School closures didn’t need to last one-and-a-half years as they did in many districts across the United States. In Sweden and Denmark, for example, students missed very little in-person school days and are not suffering from the learning loss that is drowning American children.

Many private schools in America did not close during the pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their students. That is another reason we need to expand access and options for our children. Weingarten used the word “privatizing” in her comments last month as a scare tactic to imply that with more educational choice, public funding is eliminated, and the poor will suffer. School choice advocates, however, are not pushing for privatizing education. Rather, we argue that children are better served with public funds when the money follows the students. In fact, prolonged school closures and declining standards in public education most significantly affect America’s low-income children. Not only are public schools dumbing down our children, but they have also exacerbated economic inequalities with prolonged closures.

During the pandemic, there was a mass exodus of an estimated 1.2 million children from K-12 public schools. Parents knew our public schools were failing, and those with resources voted with their feet. Children from families with fewer resources were trapped in Weingarten’s prison, where they were denied in-person education for reasons much more to do with power than public health. Weingarten points one finger about who is undermining democracy, but three are pointing back to her.

Weingarten’s activism and leadership had catastrophic consequences. On an international math exam, called the Program for International Student Assessment, given to 620,000 15-year-old students from 81 countries, American students’ scores decreased by 13 points during the pandemic. Their scores dropped from 478 (of 1,000) in 2018 to 465 in 2022, placing our children 26th in the world for math achievement.

In addition to substantial learning loss demonstrated on multiple standardized tests, prolonged school closures have significantly contributed to the absenteeism plaguing our nation’s public schools. An unprecedented number of students are chronically absent in America’s schools, meaning they miss 10 percent or more of their school days. America’s children have internalized Weingarten’s pandemic message that their school attendance is inconsequential. After all, if that weren’t the case, why were schools’ doors closed for so long?

Union Head and Other Liberals Flee the Sinking Ship

In light of these post-pandemic developments, even the public school purists are fleeing the sinking ship with their children. The head of the Chicago Teachers Union, Stacy Davis Gates, enjoying an annual income of $262,429enrolled her child in a private high school after fervently opposing school choice. Meanwhile, local school board member Melanie Meren of Fairfax County, Virginia, was influenced by teachers unions to repeatedly vote for prolonged school closures but sent her own children to private educational pods to supplement the district’s virtual learning. According to people like Davis Gates and Meren, public schools are good enough for our children but not for theirs.

Weingarten, leader of the anti-choice zealots, brags that 90 percent of our children still attend public schools, where she tries to hold them captive. If given another publicly funded option, many of our children would not be there. What monopolist doesn’t love to try to maintain her power and fiefdom? To the rest of us, when that failing fiefdom’s battle cry is for closed schools, reduced standards, and the suspension of teacher evaluations, the need for competition is crystal clear.

Supporting School Choice and Saving ‘Democracy’

Indeed, competition would decrease Weingarten’s power and likely improve public school performance for the children who remain there. Public school teachers and administrators would actually need to teach our children how to think instead of what to think if parents had other viable and affordable options for their children’s education.

American families have diverse needs, making school choice exceedingly beneficial. In recognition of the necessity of policies that support families’ educational choices, we celebrate National School Choice Week from January 21-27, 2024. Few issues are more important than the proper education of America’s children. In fact, school choice deserves to be celebrated for the entire month of January rather than just the week.

Founders Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, all supporters of public education, likely would be mortified by its current inadequacy. To save self-government for future generations and revive the education system for America’s children, we desperately need school choice and competition.