Virginia House Passes Legislation to Reverse Admissions Changes to Governor’s Elite Schools
The Virginia House of Delegates narrowly approved a bill to reverse admissions changes to some of the state’s prestigious governor’s schools.
The legislation, which passed the House on Wednesday in a 50-48 vote, would ban one of the elite public schools – some frequently listed among the best secondary schools in the country – to discriminate against or give “preferential treatment” to students on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
It would also prohibit “proxy discrimination,” defined in the bill as any admissions criteria that can lead to preferential admissions based on the same demographic attributes (capping admissions from certain feeder schools, for example, or prioritizing certain postal codes).
Sponsored by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, the legislation highlights the ongoing partisan divide over The 20 Governor’s Schools of Virginia, designed to serve gifted high school students in surrounding communities. While schools serve a few thousand students across the state about 1.2 million public school students, they have generated outsized controversy thanks to their national reputation and high demand for slots.
Most of the uproar has centered on Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, ranked as the best public school in the nation by US News and World Report. In 2020, 73% of the school’s incoming freshmen were Asian and just over 17% 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.
Large disparities within the school’s demographics have existed for decades, and in 2012 the NAACP filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that Thomas Jefferson was systematically excluding black and Latino students. After years of debate, the school revamped its admissions process in 2020, eliminating a longstanding admissions test and $100 application fee.
The following year, 11% of admissions offers went to Hispanic students and 7% to black students. Twenty-two percent of admitted students were white and 54% of offers went to Asian students — a notable decrease from previous years, when they made up 65-75%, according to the Washington Post. A decision is pending in a lawsuit filed to challenge the admissions changes.
The school’s new policy asks employees to consider the student’s socio-economic background and other experience factors. The district also implemented a quota system for individual colleges in an effort to improve geographic diversity. In 2019, for example, more than half of incoming freshmen came from five of Fairfax County’s 23 colleges, according to Inside Nova.
“It’s been a controversy in Northern Virginia for a very long time and we resolved it without the General Assembly intervening,” Del said. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, during a debate Wednesday on the bill. But while the changes have resulted in Thomas Jefferson’s most racially and economically diverse incoming class in recent history, according to the Washington Postthey have triggered a lawsuit from a group of families demanding the new policies discriminate against Asian American students.
Among Virginia’s elected officials, the issue has become the subject of fierce and often partisan debate. Newly sworn in Governor Glenn Youngkin pledged to reverse Thomas Jefferson’s confessions change during the election campaign and, in his first decreedirected the state Superintendent of Public Instruction to end any governor’s school curriculum that promoted “inherently divisive concepts.”
Like Youngkin, Davis also said he wanted to focus on merit-based admissions, blaming enrollment disparities for the uneven quality of college education. His bill directs any local division that operates a governor’s school to “ensure” that each of its colleges offers “courses, curriculum and instruction comparable in content and rigor.” It does not include clear instructions on what those courses should look like, or call for additional funding to help local divisions make improvements.
“I can give you reasonable and fair access by putting in place a quota system,” Davis said Wednesday. “But that doesn’t mean the students placed in these schools were given the resources to excel.”
House Democrats, on the other hand, have been adamant in defending the admissions changes, saying the governor’s schools have been able to broaden the diversity of their applicant pools while maintaining high standards. Of the. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, said the average GPA of candidates from last year to Thomas Jefferson, at 3.9, was higher than it had been in previous years.
“The new process is merit-based and racially neutral,” he said on the court. “It is designed to ensure that all students with an aptitude for STEM have the chance to enter school and succeed.”
It remains unclear how the legislation will perform in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority. The House Education and Health Committee is led by Pro Tempore Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who in 2021 backed a bill to extend similar admission changes at Governor’s Schools across Virginia. But the legislation died with the support of several Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax and Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.
“I understand as well as anyone that we need to bring different populations into our governor’s schools, and I think there are ways to do that,” Petersen said last year. “I am very concerned, however, with the tone that has been set by this bill.”