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Are Local Parents a New Political Powerhouse?

New PAC tries to organize parents statewide before elections.

In three years, Bob Griendling has gone from concerned school parent to one of the state’s most vocal advocates for public education.

In 2000, he and other parents of students at Woodson High School, in Fairfax, started RENEW (Renovate and Educate the Next Era at Woodson) to press the Fairfax Board of Supervisors to renovate the school building. Their coalition has formed one of the newest state Political Action Committees with parents from across the state.

The PAC, called Renew Virginia Schools, will try to get education-friendly lawmakers elected to the General Assembly. “I had no idea,” said Griendling. “I had no idea of going this far with it.”

For the last three years, members of the Woodson group have gone down to Richmond during the session to lobby their representatives. During those trips, local advocates realized that the main problem facing education in Virginia was a lack of funding.

“It was over the last year that we realized that for a lot of practical reasons the best thing was to form a statewide political action committee. We realized that what really impacts is who you get elected,” said Griendling, adding, “It sounds a bit elementary.”

“We have to make it statewide in order to convince some of those downstate legislators that it wasn’t just people in Fairfax County that cared about schools,” said Griendling.

The group, he said, is the first PAC organized by parents in support of education.

George Waters, a Fairfax County education advocate who is not involved in the PAC, said that, if successful, the effort to organize school parents could pay off.

“Just look at Fairfax County,” he said. “There’s 162,000 students if you figure each one of those students has at least one parent if not two, you’re looking at 300-plus thousand people. That would be overwhelmingly the biggest constituent group in the county. In power they ought to be able to dwarf any other interest group, the developers, anybody.”

So far, Waters said, parents have not been politically organized and he puts part of the blame on the state PTA. “There’s a feeling in some circles that the PTA should stay out of politics and they ought to do bake sales,” he said. “I think it’s crazy.”

But Diane Brody, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said that many parents are already too busy to take on political activism.

“Everybody’s got more than enough on their plate already and we’re asking them to step into an area that they may not be comfortable with and often don’t have much experience with,” she said. “We’re asking them, basically, to open communication with their legislators.”

SO FAR, Renew Virginia Schools has endorsed 32 candidates in both House and Senate races. The new PAC can’t promise its candidates financial contributions, hoping instead that word of mouth from parents at back-to-school nights, football games and over the phone will sway the election.

The group has raised about $5,000, Griendling said, but most of that money will be used to print flyers and road signs.

All but seven of the 32 endorsed candidates are Democrats but Griendling said there was “no party bias” in the selection of candidates.

WHETHER A NEW group of parents advocates with little funding can make a difference in the year’s elections remains to be seen. Griendling said he’d “love to go six for six” in his targeted races but that will be difficult as none of the targeted candidates are favored to win.

“If you make education the issue and you flip the district you’ve made a statement,” he said.