Virginia lawmakers throw out bill aimed at increasing diversity at elite schools

Legislation that supporters say would increase diversity at some of Virginia’s most elite schools failed in the state Senate on Thursday as a committee decided to scrap the bill “indefinitely.”

The move followed a passionate debate within the Senate Health and Education Committee during which Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said his constituents were “overwhelmingly” against it.

“My emails ran almost 20 or 30 to 1 against what we’re proposing to do,” Saslaw said.

The admissions debate has been gaining steam particularly in Northern Virginia at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, located in Fairfax County, one of the Governor’s Schools that has been ranked as the top public high school in the country.

The bill would have required the Virginia Board of Education to develop fresh guidelines for the state’s 19 Governor’s Schools, which serve gifted high school students.

The board would need to “issue guidance on the governance” of the schools, “including communication and outreach practices, admissions policies and guidelines on diversity, equity and inclusion training.”

Specifically, the bill would have required guidelines that focused on increasing access for historically underserved groups, specifically Black and Latino students.

“This has been a festering wound for many years and it’s time we lance it,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, referring to what she said was a lack of diversity at the schools.

The Governor’s Schools have traditionally admitted students through a test-based admissions system, which critics argue should be modified or replaced in order to increase diversity among the student populations.

Arguments against doing that included concerns that some students of color, specifically Asian students, would be negatively impacted by such changes.

Opponents have also claimed that changing the system would lower educational standards.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, took issue with that.

“When people make the argument that increasing diversity is somehow going to lower the academic standards, that is simply not the case and it’s offensive,” she said, claiming that she had seen an “outpouring” of support from former students who had attended the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies in Richmond.

“They are hugely supportive of the bill,” said Hashmi.

Senators on the committee voted 9-6 to table the bill indefinitely. Four Democrats and five Republicans voted against the bill.

“There’s always this stonewalling and we’re hearing it from some of our members here,” said a frustrated Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.

Fairfax County Public Schools is completely overhauling the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, with standardized tests being thrown out in favor of a more holistic review.

Supporters of the existing process filed a lawsuit and asked for an injunction to stop the school system from making changes.

A county judge refused to issue the injunction but did allow the lawsuit to continue.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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