State reform of Governor’s Schools blocked; local boards act

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A push to increase the numbers of Black and Hispanic students at Virginia’s selective “Governor’s Schools” by changing admissions policies has failed, despite the support of Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.
But what supporters were unable to achieve at a statewide level may become a reality at a local level, as more county school boards implement some of the changes they sought.
Virginia education Secretary Atif Qarni spearheaded an effort last year to address the lack of diversity at the state’s 19 Governor’s Schools, especially Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County and Maggie Walker High in Richmond.
Those two schools in particular are considered elite institutions; TJ is ranked the best high school in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
But Black and Hispanic students have long been woefully underrepresented at both schools. Out of roughly 1,300 students at TJ, only 31 are Black and 47 are Hispanic. At Maggie Walker, Black students make up about 7% of the student body, even though the Richmond-area population it serves has a much larger African American population.
Similar controversies have erupted over plans to change admissions policies at some other elite public schools in the country, such as Lowell High School in San Francisco and Stuyvesant in New York City, where, like these Virginia schools, most of the students are Asian American.
Qarni convened a working group last summer to study potential solutions. The group considered eliminating a reliance on standardized tests and awarding admission by lottery to all applicants who meet certain qualifying standards. Another option would set aside a certain number of slots for applicants based on geography, so neighborhoods with large Black or Hispanic populations could benefit.
Ultimately, though, the legislation put forward in the General Assembly was less forceful. It merely would have required the state Board of Education to issue guidance to Governor’s Schools on admissions and diversity policies.
The bill passed the House of Delegates on a 58-41 vote but died in the Senate, where the Education and Health committee voted 9-6 last week to kill it. Centrist Democrats including Majority Leader Dick Saslaw and Chap Petersen voted with Republicans to spike the bill.
The legislation’s death doesn’t mean changes aren’t happening, though. The Fairfax County School Board voted to overhaul admissions at TJ, despite a fierce campaign by proponents of the existing system.
A standardized test that had been a linchpin of TJ’s admissions process has been scrapped in favor of a more holistic approach that also ensures geographic diversity.
A group of parents at TJ is suing to reverse the changes, arguing that it will water down the quality of the education. A conservative legal group also is considering a lawsuit, arguing that the changes amount to an unconstitutional racial quota system that discriminates against Asian Americans, who make up 70% of the TJ student body.
Changes are also underway at Maggie Walker, though its process is more cumbersome. Each of the 14 jurisdictions that feed into the Richmond-based school selects potential applicants based on their own criteria. But a standardized test that is given to all applicants is not being used this year, based on concerns about on-site testing during a pandemic, and some hope to remove it permanently.
Rasheeda Creighton, a Maggie Walker alumna who has advocated for increased diversity at her alma mater and other Governor’s Schools, expressed disappointment that the Senate couldn’t pass even a watered-down version of the proposed changes. She said opponents in northern Virginia seemed to drive the discussion, dismissing a Maggie Walker community that is much more supportive of change.
She said she’s offended by arguments equating increased opportunity for Black students with a lowering of standards.
“This IS systemic racism,” she said.
The racial tensions were on display during Thursday’s Senate committee debate. When Petersen said the student body of TJ is 80% minority, Sen. Louise Lucas, who is African American, interjected.
“For people who look like me, I would appreciate it if you would put a better definition to ‘minority,'” she said. “I know you’re not talking about people who look like me.”
Petersen clarified that his reference includes the 70% of the TJ student body that is Asian American. He went on to say that immigrant communities feel like they are being shamed for being successful academically.
“It’s become a lightning rod, and it’s been serving to stigmatize a very hard working community in Fairfax County,” Petersen said.
The bill’s sponsor, Del. Roslyn Tyler, singled out Saslaw and Petersen for blocking it, but said in a statement that she considers the effort a success “because it allowed students, alumni, teachers, administrators, elected official and other stakeholders to have a public conversation on racial biasness, inclusion and lack of diversity at the governor schools.”
She said she is confident that the Northam administration will push for reforms even without the legislation.