Taking a page from the musical playbook of the Fifth Dimension – one needs to be of a certain age to get that reference – the two candidates for the Democratic endorsement for School Board say there’s one tangible thing the county school system can do immediately in an effort to address seemingly intractable achievement disparities.
Let the sunshine in.
The way to address achievement gaps “is to know that they’re there – bring them out into the light,” said Miranda Turner, who with Mary Kadera on April 13 made their pitches to the Arlington Senior Democrats, a loosely organized group that meets monthly.
Kadera was of a similar mindset as Turner on the matter, as both candidates ripped into piecemeal data reporting that seldom gives the community a big-picture perspective on how the nearly 30,000 students in the school system are faring.
“We have known for several years we have these gaps – we need more sunshine on that data,” she told the gathering of about 35, held online due to public-health conditions.
“Several years” is, if anything, an understatement, as so-called achievement gaps – with white and Asian students on top, other groups trailing – have been a fact of life in Arlington Public Schools for decades.
They were a key focus of School Board members like Emma Violand-Sánchez (who retired after two terms) and James Lander (who was defeated in an intra-party battle after two terms), but the disparities have proved nearly impossible to bridge despite the school system’s having some of the highest per-student spending in the known universe.
The disparities and the community’s disappointment that they can’t be effectively addressed also have bedeviled at least the past three superintendents Robert Smith, Patrick Murphy and now Francisco Durán.
Turner, who has been pressing a back-to-class theme, said, anecdotally but probably correctly, that disparities have only gotten worse over the past year, as parents with resources have been able to work around the school system’s lethargic effort to get students back in classrooms, while those without such means largely have been left to fend for themselves.
She also criticized school leaders for allowing literacy efforts to be school-centric, hammering home her campaign theme that Arlington too often is a confederation of independent fiefdoms at the school level, rather than a unified school district.
Kadera agreed that, in some ways, things were getting worse rather than better.
“We’ve seen some really troubling literacy statistics,” she said. “We really need to pay careful attention.”
At the forum, both candidates also pressed for School Board members to restrain their spending impulses, rather than threaten draconian cuts if County Board members don’t cough up more cash – a yearly dance that has been common ever since School Board posts became elected slots in the 1990s.
“We should build a budget based on the revenue we have, instead of overshooting,” Turner said. “We’ve been going to the county, year after year, asking for more.”
“We have an unsustainable budget,” Kadera said. “There are changes we can make . . . cost savings we can achieve.”
But with 80 percent of school-system costs wrapped up in employee compensation, and with both candidates saying the school system needs to pay employees more, there’s not a lot of wiggle room.
But the two contenders gave it their best, as many of those who have vied as candidates before them have: Kadera pressed for better county/schools cooperation on facilities and transportation to achieve savings, while Turner pressed for scaling back increases in central-administration growth.
The candidates are vying for the seat of School Board member Monique O’Grady, who tossed in the towel and opted against seeking a second term in office. Democrats will make their choice in caucus voting in May, with the winner moving on to the general election in November.
Neither Kadera nor Turner could be classified as part of the Democratic in-crowd (although Kadera has emerged as more palatable to Democratic leaders); insiders suggest that the party’s efforts to recruit candidates who would be more in sync with existing board members (all Democrats) came up empty.