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Comment at April 7th, 2022 APS School Board Meeting: Expanded Version

Lee Phillips
April 7th, 2022

UPDATE 13MAY2022: The school board has funded the Planetarium, which means it may be operating as soon as October. Thank you for your advocacy in support of DC-area students and science education in the region.

I gave an abbreviated version of the below as a public comment at the meeting mentioned in the title. If you don’t agree with the School Board’s decision to shutter the Planetarium through its refusal to renew the Planetarium Director teaching position, please let them know.

My name is Lee Phillips. I moved to the DC area in 1987 and worked for 21 years as a research physicist for the Naval Research Laboratory. I’m employed now as a writer and consultant. I’ve been a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium since 2013. However, my remarks here today are entirely my personal opinions, and my presentation has not been approved nor seen by any other person or organization.

I would like to urge the Board to reconsider the decision not to hire a Planetarium Director for the following academic year. The lack of a Planetarium Director will have far-reaching consequences for the quality of education in the Arlington County School System. In addition, this decision amounts to a less than optimal use of resources available to the County.

The level of Science and Mathematics education in the United States compares poorly with that in most other developed nations. In addition, it has declined by most measures in recent years, even before the pandemic. In science education, we rank far below Canada, Slovenia, Estonia, and many other countries. In Math, the US fares even worse. We’re easily beat by Russia, Vietnam, Italy, Poland, New Zealand, and a couple of dozen others. We are on par with Kazakhstan, Croatia, and Hungary. Data from China is incomplete, but most indications are that we are not competitive with them either.

The consequence of our poor showing is that we now live in a world where two genocidal dictatorships, with the second- and third-largest militaries, can draw upon a population of technically well-educated citizens larger than that available to the United States. In a reality where wars are won largely through superior technology, the low priority given to science education in the US not only robs our students of opportunity, but weakens national security.

Kids in Russia and Poland are not smarter than American kids. Our problem is one of interest, motivation, and inspiration—or rather, a lack of these things. The federal government can not solve this problem. This issue can only be effectively addressed in early childhood education—in elementary school. By the time a student reaches high school, if the idea that science and mathematics are uninteresting or painful has taken root, it’s probably too late.

Planetariums are unique conduits of inspiration for young people. I vividly remember my class trips to the Hayden Planetarium in New York. They were part of what inspired me to become a scientist, and I’m lucky to have had that opportunity. Arlington is lucky to have this unusual facility: the only free-standing planetarium in the National Capital Region. It serves not only students in the school system, but the community at large. But it can do none of these things without a Director employed by Arlington Public Schools.

The decision to defer hiring a Planetarium Director is difficult to understand from a financial and resource-utilization point of view. The school system has recently spent $200,000 to replace the projector in the Planetarium. This decision will mean that the facility remains idle for at least six months after the projector is installed, during which time half the term of the initial maintenance contract will expire, while dust settles on unused equipment.

We have been informed that the decision not to renew the Planetarium Director position, which is full-time teaching position, is to help free up funds to provide an across-the-board salary increase for school system employees. The County has had trouble in the recent past in retaining teachers, many of whom have been lured by higher salaries in other jurisdictions. So the desire to raise teacher salaries makes good sense, although it should be noted that the proposed raises are not confined to the teaching staff.

The question is, is letting the Planetarium Directorship go unfilled the only way to fund this pay increase?

I’m just a physicist, and can only admire those with the ability to navigate the labyrinth of a 755 million dollar budget. But, while I don’t have a financial background, I can do arithmetic.

First I’d like to point out that the cost of hiring Planetarium Director will be about $115,000. This amounts to $25/year if divided by the total number of operating fund employees. But let’s look a little deeper.

Arlington County has the largest elementary school class size of any school district in the DC area. It also has the highest cost per pupil of any county system: 20% larger than Fairfax County. These two facts seem not to be compatible. If you cram more students into the classrooms, how can it cost more per student? I didn’t have to look far to find the resolution of this paradox.

Arlington County has a larger percentage of employees employed as non-school administrators than any other area school system. These are bureaucrats who work in offices and do not interact with students.

If we look at the total administrative staff, including in-school administrators and total out-of-school staff, and compare to the total student enrollment, we find that Arlington County has 53 students per non-teaching employee. (This does not include bus drivers, etc., but only employees paid from the operating fund.) Fairfax County, in comparison, has 77 students per non-teaching employee. The upshot is that Arlington County has 46% more non-teaching administrators and support staff per student than Fairfax County. This is an enormous difference.

I am certainly not suggesting that Arlington has a bloated school administration. I’m simply doing some arithmetic.

I have a little experience teaching science and math in several US states and two countries. I also remember my childhood in New York City, sitting in classrooms with 34 fellow students. I’m convinced that the single most important variable affecting the quality of education is class size. Arlington has remained below 30 per class, as a matter of policy, thankfully. In order to improve this metric, we don’t have the option of decreasing the student population. The only thing we can do is hire more teachers. Eliminating a teaching position is going in the wrong direction.

The science teacher with the role of Planetarium Director unlocks the doors to a rare and wonderful experience for hundreds of young people. Please don’t deny them this opportunity for even a single semester.

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