Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school in Alexandria. (Mareta Creations)
The Virginia House of Delegates narrowly approved a bill aimed at reversing admissions changes at some of the state’s prestigious governor’s schools.
The legislation, which passed the chamber Wednesday in a 50-48 party-line vote, would forbid any of the elite public schools — some frequently listed among the best high schools in the country —from discriminating against or giving “preferential treatment” to students on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
It would also ban “proxy discrimination,” defined in the bill as any admissions criteria that could lead to preferential admissions based on the same demographic attributes (capping admissions from certain feeder schools, for example, or prioritizing certain zip codes).
Sponsored by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, the legislation underscores the ongoing partisan divide over Virginia’s 20 full-year governor’s schools, designed to serve gifted high school students from surrounding localities. While the schools serve a few thousand of the state’s roughly 1.2 million public school students, they’ve attracted outsized controversy thanks to their national reputation and the high demand for slots.
Most of the uproar has focused on Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, ranked as the best public school in the country by U.S. News and World Report. In 2020, 73 percent of the school’s incoming freshmen were of Asian descent and just over 17 percent were White, according to The Washington Post. Sixteen students — three percent of the incoming class — were Hispanic, and the number of Black students was so low that the district suppressed the data.
Wide disparities within the school’s demographics have existed for decades, and in 2012, the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging Thomas Jefferson was systemically excluding Black and Latino students. After years of debate, the school revamped its admissions process in 2020, eliminating a long-standing admissions test and $100 application fee.
The next year, 11 percent of admission offers went to Hispanic students and 7 percent went to Black students. Twenty-two percent of admitted students were White, and 54 percent of offers went to Asian students — a notable decrease from previous years, when they’ve accounted for 65 to 75 percent, according to the Washington Post. A ruling is pending in a lawsuit filed to challenge the admission changes.
The school’s new policy directs employees to consider a student’s socioeconomic background and other experience factors. The district also implemented a quota system for individual middle schools in an effort to improve geographical diversity. In 2019, for example, more than half of incoming freshmen came from five of Fairfax County’s 23 middle schools, according to InsideNova.
“This has been a controversy in Northern Virginia for a very long time and we solved it without the General Assembly weighing in,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said in a Wednesday floor debate over the bill. But while the changes resulted in Thomas Jefferson’s most racially and economically diverse incoming class in recent history, according to The Washington Post, they triggered a lawsuit from a group of families who claim the new policies discriminate against Asian American students.
Among Virginia’s elected officials, the issue has become the subject of fierce, frequently partisan debate. Newly sworn-in Gov. Glenn Youngkin pledged to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s admissions changes on the campaign trail and, in his first executive order, directed the state’s superintendent of public instruction to end any governor’s school program that promoted “inherently divisive concepts.”
Like Youngkin, Davis has also said he wants to focus on merit-based admissions, blaming disparities in enrollment on the uneven quality of middle school education. His bill directs any local division that operates a governor’s school to “ensure” each of its middle schools offer “coursework, curriculum and instruction that is comparable in content and in rigor.” It does not include clear instructions on what that coursework should look like, or call for additional funding to help local divisions make improvements.
“I can give you reasonable and equitable access by putting in a quota system,” Davis said Wednesday. “But that doesn’t mean the students put into those schools were given the resources to excel.”
House Democrats, on the other hand, have adamantly defended admissions changes, saying governor’s schools were able to broaden the diversity of their applicant pools while maintaining high standards. Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, said the average GPA of last year’s applicants to Thomas Jefferson, at 3.9, was higher than it had been in previous years.
“The new process is based on merit and is race-neutral,” he said on the floor. “It’s designed to ensure all students with an aptitude for STEM have the chance to access the school and succeed.”
It’s still unclear how the legislation will fare in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority. The chamber’s Education and Health Committee is helmed by President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who in 2021 supported a bill aimed at expanding similar admissions changes to governor’s schools across Virginia. But the legislation died with support from several Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax and Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.
“I understand as well as anybody that we need to get different populations into our governor’s schools, and I think there are ways to do it,” Petersen said last year. “I’m very concerned, though, the tone that has been set by this bill.”
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