With Dem support, Senate panel advances bill targeting admission changes at governor’s schools

‘Every time we pass a law, we make a statement’

By: - March 3, 2022 6:20 pm

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

Sen. Louise Lucas, president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, has described her chamber as a “brick wall” against some of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s biggest educational priorities, from charter schools to a proposed ban on what he’s described as “divisive concepts.” 

But Thursday several Democrats on the Senate’s influential Education and Health committee, which Lucas chairs, voted with Republicans to advance one of Youngkin’s top issues — a bill aimed at undoing recent admissions changes at Virginia’s prestigious governor’s schools. 

The original legislation by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, specifically targeted policies at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — consistently ranked as the best public school in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The school has made national headlines for significantly shifting its admissions process in 2020 amid a nationwide reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The changes were largely prompted by a state-ordered push for diversity within Virginia’s elite public schools. After decades of complaints over the makeup of Thomas Jefferson’s student body, Fairfax County administrators eliminated a long-standing admissions test and $100 application fee, implementing a model that dedicated slots to top-ranked students from each of the division’s 23 middle schools.

The new model significantly boosted enrollment among Black and Latino students — garnering praise from some legislators and advocates — while notably reducing the number of offers made to Asian American applicants, who accounted for 54 percent of incoming freshmen in the year after the changes were made. Historically, they’ve accounted for 65 to 75 percent, according to the Washington Post. 

Last week, though, a federal court struck down the changes in a decision that “appalled” advocates for the policy shiftaccording to The New York Times. Judge Claude M. Hilton, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, ruled that the new process “employed proxies that disproportionately burden Asian-American students,” with the implicit intention of changing the school’s racial makeup.

Fairfax County Public Schools is considering its options when it comes to appealing the ruling and “hopes to provide more clarity in the coming days,” according to spokesperson Julie Moult.

But the decision, and potential for a longer legal battle, is likely to deepen divisions over Virginia’s governor’s schools. Diversifying the schools has been an ongoing debate even among liberal legislators. House Democrats voted unanimously against Davis’ bill when it passed the chamber last month, but it survived the Senate committee largely thanks to Northern Virginia Democrats who coalesced to support the measure.

They included Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who significantly amended the legislation to remove most of its most controversial components. As drafted by Davis, the bill would have forbidden any governor’s school in Virginia from engaging in what he described as “proxy discrimination” — defined 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).

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, reclines on the floor of the Senate. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Petersen’s amendments cut the length of the bill in half and simply ban any governor’s school from discriminating “on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin” in its admissions process. Functionally, the language mirrors existing federal law, and it’s unclear if the legislation would lead to any real policy changes at other elite high schools where equitable admissions have become a growing focus. 

But passing the amended bill, Petersen said, would be a clear stance against the changes at Thomas Jefferson, where administrators spoke openly about the need to make student demographics more reflective of the county’s as a whole.

“You know, every time we pass a law, we make a statement,” he said. “And the statement we’re making is, no discrimination against groups or individuals.

“I have no problem with using neutral criteria for admissions,” he added. “But the problem is when you adopt those policies, those quote — and I use the word quote — neutral policies after making repeated public statements that the racial composition of TJ High School doesn’t match Fairfax County. I mean, clearly, you’re trying to reduce one group. And that’s not right.”

A coalition of local families and former students made the same arguments in their lawsuit against the division’s admissions changes, which have been questioned by other Senate Democrats. In 2021, several lawmakers, including Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, joined Republicans in killing a bill that would have specifically directed governor’s schools to admit “historically underserved students.”

Saslaw, especially, argued that many of his constituents were “overwhelmingly against” the legislation. 

“Many of these are parents — a large percentage — who came here as immigrants and have done anything they can to improve their situation,” he said during a 2021 committee hearing. “They consider this bill highly offensive.”

Virginia State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, holds his mask as he addresses the body during the Virginia Senate Special Session in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber/Pool)

This year, Saslaw joined Petersen in advancing the amended legislation along with Lewis and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax. “I don’t see anything in here that’s not federal law,” Saslaw said during the hearing. “I just don’t see the big deal — this solves the problem.”

It was a rare instance of Senate Democrats breaking nearly uniform resistance to GOP-backed priorities this session. Petersen also drafted a surprise amendment to legislation that allowed families to opt out of local school masking policies, and was one of three Democrats who voted to pass the bill and ultimately send it to Youngkin for a signature. But the committee voted down nearly every other major Republican measure on Thursday, from the lone surviving bill seeking to ban “divisive concepts” in public education to legislation that would repeal the state’s cultural competency training requirements for all Virginia teachers.

How to address diversity within Virginia’s governor’s schools, though, will likely remain a looming local question. Youngkin pledged to repeal 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.” But most legal experts say the governor has no clear authority over local school districts, where, in some cases, debate over the demographic makeup of the elite schools has spanned decades.

The governor’s order also directs Jillian Balow, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, to increase the number of governor’s schools, potentially super-charging the debate. Petersen’s amendments to the bill would direct local school boards to make sure every public middle school offers equally rigorous coursework, a step that could expand the number of students interested in — and eligible for — the elite academies, he said. 

But advocates for the admissions changes at Thomas Jefferson pointed out that they effectively increased diversity — including the number of economically disadvantaged students admitted to the school — while maintaining high GPA standards for new applicants. Others have questioned how else to address the problem.

“This has been a controversy in Northern Virginia for a long time and we solved it without the General Assembly weighing in,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said last month before voting against Davis’ bill. “Not everybody is ever going to be happy. There’s no such thing.

“This bill isn’t going to solve problems, it’s not going to bring us together,” he added. “It’s not going to make things less divisive.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.