Rhetoric v. Reality in the New “Equity” Policy

After a working session of the Fairfax County School Board a couple of days ago, a new draft of the proposed Equity Policy was hurriedly drafted, and then posted on the FCPS website at 3:30 Friday afternoon.  A meeting will be held Monday evening, June 26, to stamp it with the Board’s final approval.  It appears to be a done deal.

The policy is vague and broad.  Its mish-mash verbiage gives FCPS administrators latitude to pursue wide-ranging, ideologically-driven activities in the name of “equity.”  Controversy could have easily been avoided if the school system’s actions had matched its rhetoric.


The process of developing the policy began at a working session of the School Board on July 12, 2022.  At that time, two points were emphasized:

  • In order to build consensus for an equity policy, the public should be fully engaged at all stages.  Collaboration should occur at the outset, during the development stage, and after presenting a completed proposal to the public.
  • The term “equity” means different things to different people, and, as used by some, it suggests contentious, ideological policies and actions in the name of fairness.  The FCPS policy should define “equity” with care, in a consensus-building way.  “Equity” should focus on removing barriers to a good education where such barriers exist, and on ensuring that every student has an opportunity to achieve his or her full potential.

The reality hasn’t lived up to these prescriptions.  The policy was developed with minimal input from anyone other than FCPS equity insiders and their favored “stakeholders,” i.e., interest groups who believe in an expansive notion of “equity.”  Although its development has consumed almost a year, no draft of it was ever shown to the general public until June 14, just ten days ago.  And, as said above, the policy’s language has not been carefully crafted to build consensus.

“We Will Be Inclusive in Developing the Policy”

The Promising Rhetoric

Recognizing that an equity policy could be contentious, the FCPS equity team promised that its development would involve all segments of the community, and the Board members stressed the importance of doing so.

Ricardy Anderson asked: “How are we going to ensure we hear from our immediate community — our parents, students and staff, and our larger community of those who live in Fairfax?”  The Chief Equity Officer, Nardos King, responded: “It’s important that we bring people along with us on this journey … engage with the public through surveys, small group engagement, advisory groups, and continuous and ongoing constituent information through School Board members.”  The Deputy Superintendent, Frances Ivey, added that the engagement plan outlined in the slide presentation “is just the beginning.”  She promised to develop a broader plan on how the staff would “make sure we’re engaging all of our families, particularly families that don’t normally engage … to make sure we’re tapping all across the county.”

Stella Pekarsky reinforced the point in her remarks, stating that FCPS should “go slow … bringing in the community because this isn’t a School Board policy; this is a community policy.”  Later in the meeting, she added: “I just want to make sure that we are including people that do not traditionally come to us, but also who are critical of some of the work we have done under the equity umbrella.  We need to understand and hear from them and see where there is this disconnect, because I believe we all believe in the ultimate goal.  So I hope it’s very robust.”

Tamara Derenak-Kaufax said, “The needs assessment needs to be done in a way where the public feels fully engaged. … I want to be included in that community outreach …. I want the system to show we’re all in this together.  We want to make certain the community feels engaged as we move forward.”  She also commented that “the bigger the circle, the more inclusive [it is], there’s a greater chance of ownership of the policy, and less controversial ….”

Karen Keys-Gamarra added: “This is an opportunity for everyone to participate in the conversation.  This is not intended to be the staff going in the back and writing something and telling us what to do. … The slide show lists ways communication is supposed to occur over the entire school year.  I want the community to understand that that is what is anticipated. … I want a very clear communication plan so that we are making an announcement to the community that this is the beginning of this work, and these are the opportunities they have to participate.”

Karen Corbett-Sanders stressed the need for a project management plan that would outline all the work to be done, including how public engagement and feedback would occur.

The current Board chairperson, Rachna Sizemore-Heizer, nailed it down in her remarks.  She asked: “Are you doing the community outreach before the policy is developed, after you get feedback, or both?  The Chief Equity Officer responded: “Both.”  Ms. Sizemore-Heizer then said: “It’s important to do both, partly to close the feedback loop: ‘Here’s the input I gave; here’s what you developed; now I want to give you feedback on how my input did or did not influence you.'”  Later in the meeting, she said: “All our policies are important, but this one is core to our work, and it does need … a more robust community engagement … a very systematic way of engagement both before and after the draft policy.”

No one disagreed with these reassuring statements.

The Reality

The emphatic directions given at the working session were not followed.  The speakers either didn’t mean what they promised, or they promptly forgot what they promised, or they didn’t really care whether their promises would be kept.  The reality is that an Equity Policy is going to the Board for final approval two days from now — on June 26 — without any serious engagement with the entire community.

There was no public survey.  There were no community forums.  If there was a comprehensive project management plan, it wasn’t widely shared.  No draft of a policy was released to the public for timely review and feedback.

The equity staff did conduct some focus group sessions, but these were mostly with interest groups that would be expected to be supportive of what the staff wanted to do, and the input from those groups wasn’t publicly shared.   A so-called Equity Policy Steering Committee was also created, but its role was minimal.  It held only two superficial sessions in February and March.  This fifty-member group was so non-diverse that an NAACP member felt comfortable in openly challenging my very presence because she perceived that I wasn’t supportive “of what we are trying to do.”  The group was soon disbanded without ever seeing a draft of the policy.

No draft was released until June 14, just as schools were recessing for the summer, when families would be least likely to be engaged.  And this was only one week before the Board’s June 21 working session and only twelve days before the date set for final approval.  It was quietly announced, and the text was not easily accessible by persons who aren’t familiar with how to do searches on the FCPS website.  It is probable that less than one percent of Fairfax families are even aware of the policy, much less familiar with its contents.

Does this qualify as the robust public engagement the Board promised?  If not, does the Board care?  There is no emergency that requires immediate adoption of the proposal, so why is the Board intent on rushing it through?  They still have time to defer the vote, but will they?

“The Definition of Equity Must Be Clear and Should Avoid Contentious Territory”

The Promising Rhetoric

The Board was equally reassuring about what the scope of an equity policy should be.

Ricardy Anderson said that since “equity” is an ambiguous term — the twelve Board members might each have a different definition — it was important to develop a common understanding of what it would mean in the policy.

Karl Frisch described “equity” as a noncontroversial concept.  He said FCPS practices equity every day by offering extra resources to students who need them, special education programs for handicapped students, advanced placement programs for faster learners, and reduced fees for those who can’t afford them.

Laura Jane Cohen suggested that “equity” should be defined in a way that doesn’t create liberal v. conservative issues; the focus, she said, should be on providing every student with an education that will allow him or her to feel successful.

Stella Pekarsky echoed the point, commenting that it’s unfortunate that “equity” has become politically charged; everyone, she said, can get behind the idea of providing resources to allow all students to feel successful.

Rachna Sizemore-Heizer defined “equity” as “access to opportunities and removing barriers … that’s what equity is.”

The Reality

After the Board’s June 21 working session, a revised proposal was posted on the FCPS website at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, June 23.  This draft is HERE.  

The new proposal superficially softens some of the more contentious language in the June 14 version, but it doesn’t substantively eliminate the areas of concern.

The vague and over-broad provisions in the final product are too numerous to catalogue in this article, but here are a few:

  • “Equity” is defined as “Ensuring that everyone has the same access to opportunities and that individual factors do not hold anyone back from reaching their full, unique and limitless potential, while also responding to and addressing barriers that cause underservice ….”  Let’s pause here for a moment, before quoting the last few words of the definition.  The just-quoted language fits nicely with FCPS’s just-adopted Strategic Plan, and it would probably receive widespread support.  But the “equity” activists insisted on adding these words at the end: “… and disproportionalities within our system.”  What does this mean?  “Disproportionality” is defined in the policy as “an over or under representation of a specific group with respect to the overall population in a given data set.”  In plain English, this means an outcome is “disproportionate” if one identity group (e.g., African American students, or English-language learners) lags behind others in a “data set” (e.g., achievement as measured by testing and grading).  The policy goes on to say that FCPS must enact policies and practices “in response to data that demonstrates disproportionate student outcomes ….”  The term “disproportionate outcomes” is not defined and is vague.  Thus, the door has been left open for many types of mischief, such as mandating equal outcomes for all and/or eliminating objective testing that might result in “disproportionate data sets” and/or changing how grades are awarded in order to disguise the “disproportionalities.”
  • The first enumerated “priority” of the policy is to “elevate urgency for those students who have been underserved.  It is this data that will continue to drive our decision making and goals.”  Shouldn’t equity address the needs of all students so that everyone can reach their full potential?  For example, shouldn’t an equitable school system ensure that the brightest and most motivated students receive the more demanding coursework and resources they need?
  • As written, the new policy would be the most important one in the entire FCPS system, prevailing over the scores of policies that already exist: “This policy will guide the language and intent of all other policies within FCPS.”  The policy lists some specific policies that “will consider the priorities and responsibilities in this policy,” including the long-standing Controversial Issues Policy.  That policy is simple and straightforward:  It says that if controversial issues arise in classrooms (i.e. issues as to which “there are substantial differences of opinion … and when these differences of opinion are accompanied by intense feelings and strong emotions ….”), teachers will be neutral.  Efforts have been made in the past to amend this policy to enable teachers to instruct students that some students are victims because of “systemic racism,” “privilege,” etc.  Is it the intent of this Equity Policy to enable controversial issues like this to be taught?


FCPS administrators and School Board members express bafflement about how anyone could be concerned about an equity policy.  They suggest that all they want to do is to open up opportunities and remove barriers to learning.  But when push comes to shove, they refuse to say this is the full extent of what “equity” means.  Moreover, they routinely invoke “equity” to justify far-ranging, controversial policies and programs.  “Equity” is used to mandate access by biological males to girls’ locker rooms.  It is invoked as a reason to put all boys and girls into the same sex-education classes starting in the 5th grade.  It is used to advocate “equity grading” (i.e., bastardizing actual test scores with artificial ones in order to make results look better).  And so on.

Ideologically driven policies and practices like these make the term “equity” controversial.  Public engagement in developing the Equity Policy might have made this clear to the baffled FCPS administrators and School Board members.  A policy widely supported by the community might have developed.  Sadly, the promises weren’t fulfilled.

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