CHRISTIANSBURG — Several Montgomery County School Board members condemned comments made during a recent board of supervisors supporting school vouchers or tax credits to public school students who decide to switch to private or home schools.
The voucher issue was part of county supervisors’ discussion over its legislative priorities, a list of measures the local governing body sends to the General Assembly each year in hopes of approval.
The voucher measure, as described in the draft legislative priorities, calls for public school students to be allowed to spend vouchers or tax credits on private school or home school tuition, should those students decide to make the switch. However, the item being part of the legislative priorities means whether the measures ever goes into effect rests in the General Assembly’s hands, not the board of supervisors.
Supervisors were divided along partisan lines over the issue, with the GOP members citing parental choice as their reason for supporting vouchers. The Democrats countered that vouchers could lead to declines in public school enrollment and effectively cuts in state funding, an argument echoed by several school board members on Tuesday.
School Board member Penny Franklin said she had trouble with past comments from some supervisors who voiced support for public schools, yet then backed the idea of vouchers.
“I support public education, yet we’re going to support something that’s going to take funds directly out of public education,” Franklin said, adding later that public education is intended to be an “equalizer in this country.”
The supervisors who expressed support for vouchers argued that their backing of the idea is rooted to concerns from parents who have voiced displeasure with recent activities within the schools.
Several school board members made indirect references to Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Fijalkowski, who received criticism for his comments on transgender students. Among other points in the supervisors discussion, Fijalkowski spoke about frustrations over new accommodations due to the state requiring school districts to approve policies on the treatment of transgender students.
“It was truly disheartening to hear the chair of that board talk about one of our students who was brave enough to come and stand before us and try to help us understand what they feel and how they have been treated,” Franklin said, referring to when Fijalkowski mentioned an MCPS student during his comments on the transgender policy. “To talk about ‘those people’ or ‘other people.’ The last time I looked around, we’re all humans and some of the discord we have in this country is from those exact kinds of statements and beliefs, that it’s ‘those people, these people, them.’ We’re all in this together.”
Another point Franklin expressed during a school board meeting this week—a point she previously made when she voiced support for the district’s transgender policy—is that the opposition to the policy evoked painful memories of the opposition to integration in the schools decades ago.
“This is exactly what I was feeling listening to that conversation: ‘We don’t want anybody who’s different from me to be in the same building and have to do anything differently for anybody else because this is what I’m comfortable with and this is what I like and this is how I want it to be,” said Franklin, the only Black member on the school board and one of just two Black elected officials in all of Montgomery County. “It’s the same kind of crap that I dealt with as schools integrated in Montgomery County.”
Franklin also criticized an argument from some supervisors about how a reduction in enrollment would negate the need for additional school space to address overcrowding in certain communities.
“Well, talk to the people in Christiansburg about the building that’s almost 50 years old. No windows,” she said, referring to Christiansburg High School. “Let’s just build a smaller school. Let’s not have the things that other schools have because we’re going to do vouchers and half the kids won’t come anyway.”
The recent controversy over the vouchers comes as MCPS is in the midst of performing several school expansion projects in its Christiansburg strand, a community that has long been plagued with overcrowding.
The district’s next endeavor is the expansion of Christiansburg High, a project that the school board and supervisors are set to discuss at an upcoming meeting between the two bodies on Oct. 19.
While supervisors have no say over the school division’s day-to-day operations and exactly how the district uses its money, they are each year required to vote on the district’s budget and must approve debt needed for school construction projects.
School Board member Jamie Bond said she, too, was shocked over some of the comments made during the supervisors meeting. She called on increased efforts to educate the community, and supervisors, on all the important functions of public schools. She said sometimes people get a misleading picture of the school system due to negativity they hear.
“And just don’t see the other side to it. So, we need to make sure they understand the other side to what we offer,” Bond said. “Most people see the little negative things. They don’t see the 95% of the positive that happens every day, so we need to make sure they see all the positive things that happen every day.”
Other school board members took issue with the voucher comments possibly giving the impression of private and homeschooling being superior to public education. Some said there is little evidence providing overwhelming backing to that notion.
School board chairwoman Marti Graham said she understands there are some students whose circumstances call for different settings.
“And I respect that,” she said. “But our job is to first and foremost ensure a free quality education, and the voucher system would greatly affect the services and quality of the school division, of what we provide.”
School board members agreed to put the issue on the agenda for the upcoming session with supervisors.