The Virginia Department of Education’s offices in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. The agency has recently launched new initiatives aimed at teacher recruitment and retention with the help of federal aid money. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)
One of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s newest appointees to the Virginia Board of Education formed a group to fight admissions changes at one of the state’s most prestigious high schools.
Suparna Dutta, co-founder of the Coalition for TJ, was named to the board Thursday along with four other picks, including the executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education.
Dutta — an outspoken opponent of recently enacted eligibility criteria at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — is likely to deepen already bitter partisan debate over Virginia’s public education system.
The Coalition for TJ launched months after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a catalyzing event that spurred Fairfax County to revise the admissions process at a governor’s school long criticized for its low acceptance of Black and Latino students.
The group successfully challenged a new “holistic review” policy that eliminated the school’s $100 admission fee and two-part acceptance exam in favor of a broader GPA-based process. Staffers were not informed of a student’s race or ethnicity, but “experience factors” such as income level or special educational needs could be taken into consideration.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Fairfax County to maintain the new admissions policy as legal challenges continue in lower courts. But Thomas Jefferson has remained a nexus of Virginia’s school culture wars, with Youngkin pledging to reverse the changes on the campaign trail.
Dutta was also featured in one of the governor’s campaign videos. In a Thursday statement, Youngkin listed her among his group of “proven leaders” chosen to helm Virginia’s public education system.
“I have tasked these innovators to bring their expertise as parents, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers to ensure our classrooms and our campuses prepare students for success in life,” Youngkin stated.
“This includes providing equal access to educational opportunities regardless of background or zip code, protecting and promoting free speech, restoring the ability to have civil discourse, keeping tuition affordable, and ensuring that all Virginians have access to in-demand career pathways,” his statement continues. “Together, we will make Virginia the best place to learn across a lifetime.”
Another board appointment is Grace Turner Creasey, executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education, an accreditation and advocacy group for the state’s for-profit K-12 schools.
The governor also named Bill Hansen, who served as a deputy secretary of education under former President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003. Hansen is currently CEO of Building Hope, a national nonprofit dedicated to financing, constructing and providing operating assistance to charter schools.
Youngkin’s final appointments were Andrew Rotherham, a former board member and co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a research nonprofit focused on improving outcomes for marginalized children, and Alan Seibert, the former superintendent of Salem City Schools.
Thursday’s appointments will give Youngkin a majority on the state’s Board of Education less than six months after his inauguration, a largely unprecedented accomplishment that could fundamentally change the trajectory of the state’s public education system.
While some state boards do not have supervisory authority over their corresponding agencies, that’s not the case for the Board of Education. Virginia’s constitution gives members broad power to review and revise the standards of accreditation for the state’s K-12 schools along with the Standards of Learning, which spell out minimum expectations for what students should know at every grade level.
Members can also approve textbooks and other instructional materials, certify lists of approved superintendents for every school district and initiate new education-related regulations.
Some lawmakers and advocates have warned for months that a board majority could give Youngkin more leeway in circumventing the Virginia General Assembly, where his push for more charter schools, an attempted legislative ban on “divisive concepts” and legislation that would prohibit transgender student athletes have been blocked by Senate Democrats.
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