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Virginia bill targets admissions systems at Governor’s Schools — with possible repercussions for TJ High

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would bar Virginia’s Governor’s Schools from considering race in admissions — a piece of legislation some see as a direct assault on recent changes to the admissions process at prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The bill, introduced in the state House last week by Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), says that Governor’s schools cannot seek information on students’ race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin during the application process, apart from information gathering required by federal law. Virginia has 19 Governor’s schools including TJ, which receive some funding from the state and offer “advanced high school students” accelerated courses in focus areas such as the arts, international studies and math, science and technology.

Davis’s bill would further bar governor’s schools from “discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” — and from “engaging in proxy discrimination … in student admissions.” It permits Governor’s Schools to use only “traditional academic success factors” — such as standardized test scores or grades — in evaluating applicants.

Fairfax school board switches to ‘holistic review’ admissions system for Thomas Jefferson High School

In an interview Monday, Davis said his bill is meant to ensure that no Governor’s School in the commonwealth can consider applicants’ racial backgrounds. Doing so, he argued, would allow admissions officers to artificially engineer a faux diversity that masks deeper inequalities in what resources and opportunities are available to young children.

“If you have an academy or school, and they are accused of an inequity problem … and you let them admit students using race as a significant delineator, as opposed to addressing the underlying symptoms of inequity,” Davis said, “then that’s wrong.”

John Foster, legal counsel for Fairfax County Public Schools, which oversees and operates TJ — as Thomas Jefferson is known — said that the school does not consider race, ethnicity, national origin or any of the characteristics listed in Davis’ bill in its admissions process. But Foster said the bill clearly signals an intent to target TJ, and he slammed the proposed legislation as an attempt to “turn back the clock to an old stale approach” to admissions based solely on testing data.

“We’re going to continue to give 100 percent to defend the TJ admissions system,” Foster said in an interview Monday. “For as long as it takes.”

In late 2020, after facing withering criticism of TJ’s long-standing low enrollment of Black and Hispanic students, Fairfax County Public Schools officials revised the school’s admission process by eliminating a notoriously difficult test and a $100 application fee.

In their stead, TJ adopted a “holistic review” process that asks admissions officers to weigh four “experience factors” including whether English is an applicant’s first language, whether the applicant has a disability, whether the applicant’s family qualifies for free or reduced-price meals at school and if the applicant attends a middle school that has historically sent a small number of students to TJ. Only qualified eighth-graders — those who possess a 3.5 GPA while taking certain high-level math and honors courses — can go through the “holistic” review, and must also submit a math or science problem-solving essay as well as a “Student Portrait Sheet.”

After implementation of the new system last year, TJ enrolled the most diverse class of freshmen in recent memory, yielding a student body that is more Black, more Hispanic, has more lower-income students and is more representative of the county at large. The proportion of White students remained about the same.

In a statement Monday, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said he stands by the work he and other officials have done to alter admissions at TJ.

“It is shameful to imply that we have watered down academics,” Brabrand said. “It’s time to listen to our students. Their successes are our story and we are on the right side of history.”

The proportion of Asian American students offered admission, though, shrank under the new system, falling from the roughly 70 percent typical in recent years to slightly more than 50 percent of the current freshman class. Critics, including a large and active parent and alumni advocacy group known as the Coalition for TJ, have pointed to this drop as evidence of their charge that Fairfax officials are working to diminish the number of Asian students at the school. Fairfax and TJ have denied these claims.

After admissions changes, Thomas Jefferson High will welcome most diverse class in recent history, officials say

Davis said he would not speculate on how his bill might affect admissions at TJ, which is frequently ranked the top public high school in the nation. He also declined to comment on whether TJ overtly or covertly uses race in its admissions system.

“I don’t sit around that table,” he said of TJ. “We don’t make policy based on one school. We make policy based on good practice.”

But Foster said Davis’s bill is the third in a line of recent attacks against TJ’s admissions system; the first two are ongoing lawsuits filed by parents seeking to block or reverse the admissions changes. In those suits, the parents — many of them members of the Coalition for TJ — are arguing that the revisions to the admissions process discriminate against Asian Americans, therefore violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Foster said Fairfax officials plan to spend the coming days researching the proposed bill and its potential implications for TJ — and preparing to fight it during Virginia’s legislative session, which begins Wednesday.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said he thinks the bill is unlikely to pass, given Democrats still control the Virginia Senate. Farnsworth said the bill is likely designed to attract Republican — and maybe some independent — voters in Fairfax, part of a conservative strategy to keep the base energized for future elections.

“It seems likely that Democrats will see this is another partisan cudgel against education, and they’ll react accordingly,” Farnsworth said. But, he predicted, “it will pay off politically even if it doesn’t legislatively.”

Davis said he has not yet secured someone willing to introduce a companion bill in the Senate and that he has not yet discussed the bill with Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R), even though the incoming governor made education — and TJ’s admissions systems — a focal point of his successful campaign.

Youngkin has previously promised to return TJ’s admissions system to a solely merit-based process. Speaking on the governor-elect’s behalf, Youngkin aide Macaulay Porter declined to comment on Davis’s bill Monday. Youngkin takes office Jan. 15.

What could Glenn Youngkin as governor actually do to alter admissions at TJ?

Davis first became interested in proposing a bill on Governor’s Schools admissions during debate in last year’s legislative session over a bill that would have required the Virginia Board of Education to issue guidance to Governor’s Schools on a range of topics including “admissions policies, and guidelines on diversity, equity, and inclusion training.” The proposed legislation, which ultimately failed to pass, further stipulated that “such guidance … focus on the importance of increasing access to Governor’s Schools for historically underserved students.”

Davis realized then, he said, that other lawmakers believed it was an accepted fact that a Governor’s School could use race “as a significant factor” in admissions. His bill this year seeks to prevent that.

Davis said Members of the Coalition for TJ reached out to him about his bill as “something they thought would be very helpful” and conferred with him about the legislation before he introduced it.

The Coalition did not respond to a request for an interview or answer emailed questions.

Makya Little, the president of another advocacy group surrounding the school — the TJ Alumni Action Group — that supports the changes to the school’s admissions, said Davis’s bill represents a step backward. She said her group is still analyzing the bill, but plans to advocate against it.

“We feel this bill is aimed at covering up past discrimination, destroying regional diversity, and preventing future equity by eliminating data collection,” she said. It “appears to be an overt way to codify modern day school segregation.”

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