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ArlingtonPoliticsUpdate: Local legislators split on TJ-admissions bill

Update: Local legislators split on TJ-admissions bill

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[Updated to include final action by House of Delegates.]

The General Assembly has gone on record opposing discrimination in admissions practices at Virginia’s elite Governor’s Schools, although supporters of the measure accepted a somewhat watered-down version compared to what originally was proposed.

The state Senate on March 8 voted 26-13 to approve a substitute measure in place of the original legislation – patroned by Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) – that had passed on a 50-48 vote in the House of Delegates. The House of Delegates on March 9 voted 63-35 to accept the Senate substitute, setting the stage for the governor’s signature (or amendment or, less likely, veto).

The new version retains the original version’s prohibition against school districts from discriminating against any applicant to the Governor’s Schools – including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology – on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

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Among senators in the Sun Gazette coverage area, Chap Petersen voted to support the measure, while Barbara Favola, Janet Howell and Adam Ebbin opposed it. In the House of Delegates, Kathleen Murphy voted to support the revised version while Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Patrick Hope, Mark Keam, Alfonso Lopez, Marcus Simon and Rip Sullivan voted to oppose it. All are Democrats.

The House opting to accept the Senate amendment means the bill did not need to go to a conference committee in the waning days of the session, but instead heads to the desk of Gov. Youngkin.

The impetus for the legislation was, among others, changes imposed in 2020 by the Fairfax County School Board on “TJ” (as Thomas Jefferson is colloquially known). The changes effectively created slots at each middle school in participating jurisdictions for acceptance to the school, rather than basing admissions on results of an admissions test and overall grades of all students who applied.

“It was meant to discriminate against Asian-Americans,” said Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna), one of the Democrats to join with Republicans in supporting the measure. “That’s illegal under federal law.”

That is the same view held by U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton, who recently ruled that the existing TJ admissions policy imposed in 2020 violates federal law and the U.S. Constitution. An appeal from the Fairfax school system is likely.

On the other side of the issue, Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the previous, merit-based admissions system put at a disadvantage families that lived in areas where middle schools had limited curriculum options.

“Every child ought to be able to have a chance to get in, and not just because they happen to have wealthy parents who can figure the system out,” Surovell said.

The legislation – 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 fairer shot at winning admissions.

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. 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.

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