Commentary

Governor’s schools bill is bad policy and in bad faith

February 22, 2022 12:03 am

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school in Alexandria. (Mareta Creations)

By Akshay Deverakonda and Carrie Kahwajy

A new bill seeks to deprive local school boards of the tools needed to achieve diversity at governor’s schools throughout the commonwealth.

This regressive bill, which has passed Virginia’s House of Delegates and is now in the Senate, must be defeated. The bill defines “proxy discrimination” broadly when it comes to efforts to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and access to education and narrowly when it comes to outdated “traditional academic success factors.” As alumni of two of those governor’s schools, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies, we know that this bill would not eliminate discrimination. Rather, it would only further entrench discrimination that has festered at our alma maters and other elite public schools for generations.

The bill misrepresents what current governor’s school admissions processes actually do. At both TJ and Maggie Walker, for example, admissions decision-makers review candidates based on their applications, not demographic information. Despite this fact, the bill seeks to ban the collection of any demographic information in admissions so as to render it impossible to identify underrepresentation in total applications, application rates and admission rates. This bill would codify bad policy and obstruct the ability of local school boards, schools and community members to prioritize outreach efforts where they are needed most. It prevents them from achieving diversity and preventing racial isolation — compelling state interests affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.

Virginia House passes legislation to reverse admissions changes at elite governor’s schools

Last year, TJ notably removed the “traditional academic success factor” of a standardized test, a method the bill defines as “presumptively” non-discriminatory. However, some  academic research demonstrates that standardized tests correlate more closely with income and race than with intellectual ability or potential. In recognition of this fact, about two thirds of universities, including some of the highest-ranking schools in the country, no longer require exams.

When Maggie Walker removed the achievement portion of its own admissions test, school leadership publicly recognized that it had added no value to the admissions process. After foregoing the test in 2021 due to the pandemic, Maggie Walker increased the admitted class’s average GPA while tripling the percentage of Black students. In other words, there is no basis for forcing governor’s schools to rely only on “traditional academic success factors.” To presume such outdated methods are fair and measure merit is bad science not borne out by the evidence.

It is no accident that the language of the bill so closely mirrors the arguments made by litigious opponents of any admissions reform that seeks to expand opportunity. The Washington Post reported that Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, admitted he spoke with members of the Coalition for TJ — an activist group that has consistently opposed meaningful admissions reform and has sued Fairfax County Public Schools over pro-diversity changes — about the bill before he introduced it. The most substantial change from TJ’s recent admissions reform was the drastic increase in accepted students who are economically disadvantaged from less than 1 percent to 25 percent, much closer to the general student population.

Anti-diversity advocates often try to leverage the Asian American population as a talking point, but pro-equity admissions reforms benefit low-income Asians, English language learners, and other underrepresented Asian students as well. Plenty of Asian Americans, including one of us, support common sense reforms with proven results including the recent changes to TJ’s admissions. The argument that such a profoundly positive change is discriminatory and that the previous system was more just is not only absurd, but clearly in bad faith.

We urge all representatives who care about education access to oppose the governor’s schools bill. Virginians must unite to expand opportunity to all our students, not just the most well-resourced. By applying good science, good policy, and good faith, we are confident we can ensure governor’s schools — like all public schools — benefit everyone in the community.

 Akshay Deverakonda is a member of the TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 2011. Carrie Kahwajy is the chair of the Chesterfield N.A.A.C.P. Education Committee and a member of the Anti-Racist Alumni of MLWGS; she graduated from the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies in 1995.

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