If there is one lesson that Fairfax County School Board at-large candidate Cheryl Buford picked up from her time with the U.S. Department of Education, it is the value of local decision-making in the American public education system.
“Guidance and regulation, it can be like Goldilocks,” Buford said. “You don’t want too little. You don’t want too much, because you don’t want to hamstring people. You need to balance it, and getting that balance right is tricky.”
Buford is one of six contenders for the school board’s three at-large positions, which will not be on the ballot for June 11’s Democratic primary since the board is officially nonpartisan with candidates running as independents.
Though she now serves as vice president for business development at the Reston consulting company Social Capital Valuations LLC, Buford began her educational career as a teacher in Kansas and suburban Chicago, Ill., for 10 years before shifting to federal policy.
As the Education Department’s associate director for program analysis and evaluation, Buford was charged with assessing how much impact that nonprofit organizations had on narrowing the achievement gap for at-risk youth.
At that time, the No Child Left Behind Act was in effect as the country’s overarching law for kindergarten through 12th grade education, transforming standardized testing into the dominant measure of academic success.
Like many, Buford became frustrated with an approach that she felt was overly prescriptive, creating a tangled bureaucracy without clear proof that the programs being developed to help struggling students and schools would actually be effective.
“We’ve spent all this money, and we’re not closing the achievement gap overall,” Buford said.
Still, Buford says she has noticed some promising practices over the 30 years she has spent in the education field, and she hopes to bring those ideas to Fairfax County Public Schools if she gets elected in November to one of the school board’s three at-large seats.
One aspect of No Child Left Behind that Buford believes showed potential was the initiative involving supplemental education services, which required local districts with schools that failed to meet yearly academic goals to work with parents of eligible children to provide tutoring.
That requirement led to a rise in private tutoring services with about 2,500 companies and other organizations receiving approval from states to work with students at the initiative’s peak, Education Industry Association president Steve Pines told Education Week in 2013.
The industry started to decline in 2012 after the Department of Education began granting waivers that freed school systems from the mandate that they use 20 percent of their Title I federal funds for after-school tutoring and transportation for school choice, according to Education Week.
Buford says that, if elected to the Fairfax County School Board, she would be interested in at least examining the utility of offering tutoring services or enrichment programs to support students who are struggling.
At the county level, Buford is excited by what she has seen with Project Momentum, an initiative that FCPS launched in 2015 to prioritize resources and professional development for struggling schools and to improve equity in student achievement across the division.
With the progress made under Project Momentum, FCPS expects to see all schools achieve full state accreditation by the 2019-2020 academic year, officials reported in a presentation delivered to the Virginia School Boards Association in November.
Citing academic achievement for all students as one of her top concerns, Buford believes the school board should hold schools accountable for performing well while giving teachers and administrators flexibility.
“I want to make sure that we have rigor from the most at-risk kids to the highest-performing kids,” Buford said. “All along the way, we need to be upholding high standards, consistent standards, and helping students that are struggling to achieve their potential.”
A resident of Vienna for almost 20 years, Buford’s experience in education also extends to volunteer work that she did when her two children attended FCPS.
Her son, now an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, graduated from McLean High School, and her daughter, who currently works in the financial sector, went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
When her children were in elementary school, Buford chaired a character education committee that a former elementary school teacher had developed to use literature to instill positive messages and values like integrity or kindness in students.
Buford also helped lobby state legislators to get more funding for Thomas Jefferson as chair of the government relations committee for the magnet school’s parent, teacher, and student association.
While Buford says she was happy with her children’s experiences with FCPS, she decided to run for the Fairfax County School Board due to concerns about academic achievement, the need to educate students for a global workforce, and the availability of career and technical education.
“I’ve just become troubled at some of the trends that I’ve seen, and I couldn’t look away,” Buford said. “I have a very broad background in education and education reform, and I thought I need to step up and make a difference.”