FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A battle between parents at an elite northern Virginia high school and education officials who want to dramatically overhaul the school’s admissions process to make it more inclusive is growing more intense, with a clash between the school’s PTA and the state’s education secretary.
Parents at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology are fighting efforts from Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, who organized a task force to evaluate diversity issues at TJ and 18 other magnet schools in Virginia designated as “Governor’s Schools.”
The PTA says Qarni falsely accused one of its members, Asra Nomani, of being part of an anti-Muslim hate group after she published a column criticizing efforts to overhaul the process. Qarni has barred the school’s PTA from a participatory role in an upcoming “listening session” on the admissions issue.
TJ, a public school in Fairfax County that draws top students from throughout northern Virginia, is often ranked as the nation’s top high school in various surveys. Graduates regularly are admitted to Ivy League schools, and many parents plan their kids’ academic careers around getting into TJ. Many spend thousands of dollars on special classes designed to help them ace the admissions test administered to all TJ applicants.
But the school’s academic success has almost entirely bypassed Black and Hispanic students, who make up just a tiny fraction of the school’s student body. More than 70 percent of the student body is Asian American.
Qarni told The Associated Press in an interview that he’s developing plans to eliminate the admissions test in a process that would take socioeconomic status into account. While the changes would apply to all Governor’s Schools, the proposed changes have been most controversial at TJ and at the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, where Black and Hispanic students also are underrepresented.
He plans to submit his recommendations to the governor, who will make the ultimate decision on whether to submit legislation for the 2021 session.
TJ’s PTA surveyed its members, and they overwhelmingly support keeping the current admissions system. The PTA says the diversity problem should be fixed by better preparing and supporting Black and Hispanic students in grade school.
The battle at TJ is similar to other elite schools across the nation which have long struggled to attract Black and Hispanic students. The issue has attracted increased attention in recent months amid broad national protests to address racial injustice.
But the policy disagreement at TJ is just part of the discord. Qarni accused Nomani of incendiary rhetoric that inflames racial tensions on an already sensitive issue. Last month, she wrote an opinion piece titled “Woke War on America’s No. 1 High School” in which she said the changes are an attack on meritocracy and are “anti-Asian, anti-immigrant and ultimately anti-American.”
Qarni also criticized Nomani’s religious activism. He said in a phone interview that she has used inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims in various congressional appearances, and he told PTA members in emails and phone calls that Nomani is a member of a hate group, even though she is not.
Nomani is a founding member of the Muslim Reform Movement, which has advocated for gender equality in mosques and against rules requiring Muslim women to cover their hair. She has testified in Congress to warn against Islamic extremism, but some Muslim groups say her views feed into irrational fears of Muslims.
“There’s just too many red flags,” Qarni said on his decision to deny Nomani a speaking role at the listening session.
Nomani, for her part, said she was disappointed that Qarni attacked her religious activism.
“It’s a serious abuse of power,” she said. “Atif Qarni’s actions should cause alarm for every parent. Government is meant to hear the voice of every parent, not suppress them.”
TJ’s PTA president, Nicolae Costescu, said he was taken aback when Qarni told him in a phone call that Nomani couldn’t participate; he researched the accusation and concluded that Nomani’s work “is the opposite of a hate group.” He said the accusation is being used to silence a voice opposed to Qarni’s efforts.
“It really bothered me that he would engage in this kind of character assassination,” Costescu said. “We’re all just parent volunteers.”
Qarni says he’s bent over backward to hear from the TJ community, scheduling three different listening sessions for students, parents and alumni, and including TJ’s principal and a TJ student on his task force. But he said including Nomani in the listening session would be divisive.
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