A measure that aims to restore academics as the primary focus in the admissions process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology and other Governor’s Schools across the commonwealth has cleared the House of Delegates, but faces an uncertain future in the state Senate.
The lower house of the legislature voted 50-48, essentially along party lines, to support the measure that would require localities to elminate the use of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in admissions decisions at the 19 Governor’s Schools.
Though broad in its focus, the measure clearly targeted Fairfax County, where school officials in 2020 voted to amend the longstanding admissions policy that focused on grades and performance on a standardized test. The new regulations eliminate the test entirely, and impose a quota system giving every middle school that feeds into Thomas Jefferson slots.
Supporters of the change say it provides more fairness to the admissions process; opponents say it unfairly targets high-achieving students, many of them Asian, perhaps because Fairfax County School Board members were embarrassed by the predominance of that group in the TJ body.
(If that in fact is occurring, targeting a group of students based on race in this case would seem to be unconstitutional on its face; legal challenges on that are working their way through the courts.)
The legislation passed by the House of Delegates – HB 127 – also would require school districts that feed into Governor’s Schools to provide appropriate instruction in all middle schools, allowing students to have a fair shot at winning admissions.
“Our Governor’s Schools are the envy of the nation because of their commitment to meritocracy,” said House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). “Academic excellence should be the only prerequisite considered for admission.”
The measure now moves to the state Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 21-19 majority. A party-line vote would kill the bill, but, given the tie-breaking role of Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, it would take only one Democrat to support for it to go to the desk of Gov. Youngkin.
Thomas Jefferson was established in 1985, and while in theory a regional educational institution, has remained largely a fiefdom of the Fairfax County school system, which operates it, often to the grumbling of officials in other participating school districts.
The majority of its students always have come from Fairfax County, and some other school jurisdictions for years shied away from allowing students to attend, fearing a “brain drain,” particularly among smaller school districts.
Alexandria’s public-school system to this day does not permit its students to attend; Arlington’s school system held out for a long period but ultimately relented and allowed students to compete for admission. Students from Loudoun and Prince William counties and the city of Falls Church also are eligible to apply.
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For a list of all of Virginia’s Governor’s Schools, see the Website at https://www.doe.virginia.gov/instruction/governors_school_programs/index.shtml.