Public schools in Alexandria, Virginia, will be closed Wednesday because roughly 300 staff sought to take the day off for the “Day Without a Woman” protest. The school system did not have enough male staff to make up for the absences, so schools will be closed for what is being called, in perfect irony, a “teacher work day.”
“A Day Without a Woman” aims to “highlight the economic power and significance that women have in the U.S. and global economies, while calling attention to the economic injustices women and gender-nonconforming people continue to face.” Organizers have already succeeded in blowing up the plans of working parents in Alexandria, who now have two days’ notice to find all-day child care or take an involuntary day off from work.
Because of its location near the nation’s capital, its charming historic Old Town, and its median family income of $109,228 (the highest of any city in Virginia), outsiders might think that Alexandria boasts a first-rate public-school system. It doesn’t. The quality of the public schools within the city varies greatly, and system as a whole lags behind those in neighboring Arlington and Fairfax Counties.
Pick your measuring stick: U.S. News & World Report, Zillow, GreatSchools.org, Trulia, parental chat boards, the Washington Post ranking of local high schools. Alexandria performs poorly by any metric. SchoolDigger ranks the district 96th out of 130 districts in the state. This isn’t to say Alexandria schools are bad, exactly, but some of them are particularly subpar for an area with such relative wealth. Jefferson-Houston, which teaches students from pre-K to eighth grade, lost its accreditation in 2012. The school, which is 67 percent black, narrowly avoided being taken over by the state in a subsequent court battle.
A little more than 15,000 students attend 16 public schools in Alexandria, and the district spends $16,999 per student, according to the latest statistics. Class sizes are small, averaging 18 students in elementary school, 20 in middle school, and 22 in high school.
Despite those advantages, students in Alexandria’s public schools underperform the statewide average in subject after subject. In the 2015–16 school year, 80 percent of Virginia students passed English proficiency exams; 73 percent of students in Alexandria did. In math, 80 percent statewide passed; 68 percent of Alexandria students did. Statewide, 77 percent of students passed a test of writing proficiency; 69 percent of Alexandria students did. In history, 86 percent of students passed statewide; 77 percent of Alexandria students did. In science, 83 percent of students statewide passed; 69 percent of Alexandria students did.
As a whole, Alexandria residents have considerable wealth, but the wealthiest parents don’t send their children to public school, at least in part because the city has some of the region’s best private schools. The students who remain in the public-school system, particularly at the high-school level, disproportionately represent the city’s poorer residents. In fact, more than half of the city’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school.
The problems in Alexandria’s public schools — disappointing test scores, insufficient preparation for the challenges of college and work — are real, tangible, thorny, and intractable. They existed before Donald Trump took office, and some variation of them will likely exist after he’s gone. Abstract problems such as “sexism” and “the economic injustices facing women and gender-nonconforming people” are not nearly as easy to define as the ills that plague Alexandria schools and, indeed, schools around the country. They’re also unlikely to be solved by “A Day Without a Woman.”
Protest organizers are encouraging women who can’t take off Wednesday to wear red to work in solidarity. It’s unclear why this option wasn’t enough for the 300 teachers and staff walking out in Alexandria. Apparently, they’ve decided that standing up to the sexist menace across the river in Washington and nationwide is more important to them than doing their actual jobs. It’s a shame they aren’t more concerned with the tangible problems those jobs present every day.