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

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, then a candidate, shoots baskets as he makes a stop at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 2. Youngkin made education a cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign.
Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, then a candidate, shoots baskets as he makes a stop at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 2. Youngkin made education a cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

During his campaign, Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) placed a spotlight on education, even promising to alter the admissions system at one specific high school: the vaunted Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Youngkin told The Washington Post this fall that he wants to undo recent revisions to the admissions process at the school, a prestigious magnet STEM institution in Fairfax County known as TJ. The changes, including the elimination of a notoriously difficult admissions test, were meant to boost diversity at the school, which has historically enrolled very few Black and Hispanic students.

Youngkin said he would pressure TJ to change its admissions system to a “merit-based” process — a promise that frustrated equity advocates and school officials, who argue the current admissions system is still very much merit-based.

“He will . . . push for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to once again use merit-based admissions,” a campaign aide told The Post in September, “and we will assist those willing to invest extra effort to meet those standards an opportunity to enroll.”

But the path forward is far from clear for Youngkin. Virginia’s governor has very little ability to effect immediate change at TJ, according to legal and education experts, even though the school is one of 19 statewide designated a “Governor’s School.”

Being a governor’s school means TJ receives additional money from the state each year and that it can accept students who live outside Fairfax County — including those who live in nearby Prince William, Arlington and Loudoun counties, as well as Falls Church. But Virginia law, combined with Fairfax County Public Schools regulations, gives the school district direct control over the day-to-day operations of TJ, including its admissions system. In Fairfax legal documents, TJ is defined as a “public school . . . under the sole direction and control” of the school board.

A transition aide to Youngkin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity earlier this month, declined to answer questions about Youngkin’s specific plans for TJ.

“[Youngkin] still intends — as part of his day one game plan — to restore excellence in education and will also work to return the school to a merit-based admissions process,” the aide said.

Rich Kelsey, a former assistant dean at George Mason Law School who studies educational issues in Virginia, said following through on that promise will be difficult.

“What Youngkin can’t do is wake up on the first day he’s sworn in and mandate that this system be changed back or changed to anything else,” Kelsey said. “He doesn’t have that power; that’s outside the scope of his mighty pen.”

Youngkin has two real paths to influence TJ, Kelsey said. First, the governor-elect could try to withhold funding from the school. But that funding is determined as part of the state-passed Appropriations Act, Kelsey said, meaning Youngkin would have to gain the cooperation of the General Assembly first — which is not likely to happen while Democrats control the Virginia Senate.

Or Youngkin could try to act on TJ through Virginia’s top education officials, Kelsey said. The governor appoints the secretary of education, the superintendent of public instruction and the members of the Virginia Board of Education, Kelsey noted. With all of these people on his side, Youngkin could perhaps alter Virginia school accreditation or learning standards in a way that forces TJ to rethink its admissions system, Kelsey said.

But this would take years, because some current Board of Education members are only partway through their four-year terms.

“Systematically, over a couple of years, he could fundamentally apply pressure points that might ultimately force TJ and all the other schools to adopt different standards,” Kelsey said. “He’s not without tools or weapons, but it would take time,”

A Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman said in a statement this month that the school division of 180,000 rejects the fundamental premise of Youngkin’s campaign vow.

“The current admissions process is merit-based,” said spokeswoman Julie Moult. “Our approach is blind to the race, ethnicity and gender of students. We look at measures of ability and aptitude, considering whether the student has overcome such challenges as economic hardship [or] learning English as a foreign language.”

Moult noted that, operating under the revised admissions system, TJ accepted its most diverse class of freshmen this academic year in recent history. The Class of 2025 includes more Black and Hispanic students than any class in about half of a decade.

And the percentage of economically disadvantaged students rose dramatically — a quarter of all admissions offers went to students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Typically, 2 percent of offers go to low-income students.

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

“Our results show that you can have merit-based admissions while expanding opportunities and access,” Moult said. “The TJ approach is already being recognized as a national model for admission to elite high schools.”

A long-running debate

TJ is the crown jewel of Northern Virginia public education: It’s frequently ranked the best public high school in the United States and is famous for sending graduates to Ivy League colleges and prestigious, high-profile careers.

It was founded in 1985 as a top-tier magnet school for students interested in science, mathematics and engineering — and for the first several years, admissions officers explicitly took race into account. Each year, TJ offered spots to Black and Hispanic students who “didn’t make it to the round of 800 semifinalists but came very close and seemed otherwise qualified,” as The Post reported in 2003.

In 1997, diversity at TJ hit a peak, when the school admitted a freshman class that included 25 Black students and 24 Hispanic students, The Post reported.

But the next year, federal court rulings struck down affirmative action programs in schools across the country. School attorneys advised that TJ needed to remove race from the equation. Ever since, TJ has enrolled disproportionately low percentages of Black and Hispanic students compared to county demographics.

In 2001, TJ enrolled seven Hispanic and two Black freshmen. In 2010, TJ admitted 13 Hispanic and four Black freshmen. And in 2020 — in phraseology that became infamous — the school admitted 16 Hispanic freshmen and a number of Black students that officials declared “too small for reporting.”

Through the years, a long string of superintendents sought to boost diversity at the school by tweaking the admissions system. None of the changes — most of them relatively minor — yielded results.

That changed last year, when Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand and the school board enacted the most radical revisions to TJ’s admissions process since the school’s founding. Brabrand was partly responding to alumni and parent outrage over the “too small for reporting” statistic — and partly responding to a nationwide movement against systemic racism spurred by the murder of George Floyd.

The Fairfax school board approved Brabrand’s plan to remove the admissions test, nix a $100 application fee and require admissions officers to consider TJ applicants’ “experience factors,” such as socioeconomic status.

Proponents argue these changes remove important barriers that have long discouraged students from under-resourced households from applying. The cancellation of the admissions test in particular helps level the playing field, said Makya Little, a TJ graduate and prominent advocate of greater diversity at the school.

Over the years, parents have paid thousands of dollars to enroll their children in test prep programs. The frenzy is international: In South Korea, preschools near Korean churches advertised they can help parents get children into TJ, The Post reported in 2015.

Little is president of the Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group (TJAAG), which formed in 2016 to help diversify the school and saw an upswell of membership in summer 2020. She said the group has been tracking Youngkin’s statements and plans to contact his administration in the coming weeks to offer to work together.

Little said she is less concerned about what Youngkin might do, citing her research into Virginia law and Fairfax policies that limit the governor’s role in determining the admissions process. But she worries “about the tone he may set . . . it is really disturbing to accept that there is a lot of disdain for diversity at TJ.”

Others, though, are hailing Youngkin’s ascension to the governorship as a major victory.

The Coalition for TJ, a parent, alumni and student group that opposes the TJ admissions changes, wrote in an emailed statement on Nov. 18 that “we have one word to say in response to Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin’s pledge to return merit-based admissions . . . Hallelujah!”

The Coalition added, “We welcome [Youngkin’s] initiatives as soon as possible and stand ready to assist his administration in all possible ways.”

Parents associated with the group have already filed two lawsuits attempting to reverse the admissions changes.

The coalition has alleged that the new admissions system discriminates against Asian Americans, a charge Fairfax officials have denied. Members of the group note that, under the revised process, offers sent to Asian students dropped to 54 percent from the roughly 70 percent seen in previous years.

The coalition also asserts the admissions changes will result in lowered academic standards at TJ. But Little, of TJAAG, pointed out that the grade-point average of applicants to the Class of 2025 clocked in at 3.9 — higher than in previous years, when it ranged between 3.7 and 3.8.

Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks it would be smart for Youngkin to keep returning to TJ as governor, because the argument for “excellence and rigor and expectations” in schools is “hugely sellable.”

Hess predicted Youngkin can use the TJ admissions saga to expand beyond his traditional base and connect with more liberal voters. He said Youngkin must acknowledge TJ’s struggles with diversity, but search for other fixes.

But Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said any changes may not go over well in reliably blue Fairfax County — where
65 percent of voters chose Terry McAuliffe (D) over Youngkin this fall.

“No matter what he does with TJ, he will make enemies,” Farnsworth said. “Fairfax County voters in particular are going to have very little patience for a Republican governor’s dictates.”