Why is AG Miyares probing multiple Northern Virginia school systems?

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares has launched three separate investigations into school systems in Northern Virginia during his first year in office.

Miyares, a Republican, campaigned on education reform; and so far, he has aimed his office’s prosecutorial power at Loudoun and Fairfax counties’ school systems, earning him both praise and pushback from Virginians.

Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, a Democrat, said that Miyares’ investigation into her county’s school system doesn’t hold water.

“At the end of the day, Loudoun still ranks as one of the top systems in the country — not just in Virginia, but the country,” Biberaj told WTOP. “You can listen to all the noise out there, or you can look at the data.”

Attorney Erin Harrigan — who represents former Loudoun County schools superintendent Scott Ziegler — has gone further, claiming that Miyares’ investigations are politically motivated.

Ziegler was fired by the county school board last December, one day after a special grand jury report criticized the school system’s response to reports of two in-school sexual assaults by the same student in 2021.

Miyares, unsurprisingly, disagreed with his critics, calling the idea “laughable.”

“Our job is to seek the truth in all of our investigations, whether it’s in Fairfax, whether it’s in Loudoun,” Miyares said.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares speaks about his investigation into multiple Northern Virginia school systems with DMV Download podcast host Luke Garrett. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)

The investigations catapulted these Northern Virginia school systems into the national limelight amid a broader culture war over “wokeism” and equity vs. merit-based education debate.

“When you start investigating failures in our education system, it’s going to get a lot of media attention because it is one of the areas of government that is the closest to the heart of the citizenry,” Miyares said. “As a parent of three school-aged children, you talk about education; it’s going to be on my radar.”

In an exclusive interview with the “DMV Download” podcast, Miyares addressed each investigation and defends their merits.

Loudoun County Public Schools investigation

At the direction of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Miyares launched an investigation into Loudoun County schools within his first hour of being sworn in on Jan. 15, 2022.

The investigation centered around two incidents of sexual assault by a 15-year-old student in bathrooms at two different schools in the county. During the 2021 campaign, both Youngkin and Miyares criticized LCPS’ handling of the case.

“The Loudoun County School Board and school administrators withheld key details and knowingly lied to parents about the assaults,” Youngkin said in his executive order that launched the probe.

Miyares commissioned a grand jury to investigate. In December, the grand jury released a report, faulting the school system for “a stunning lack of openness,” and finding that administrators missed multiple chances to stop the second assault from happening.

Weeks later, the grand jury then leveled three misdemeanor charges against then-superintendent, Ziegler, and one felony perjury charge against schools spokesman Wayde Byard.

Two of the charges against Ziegler do not relate to the bathroom assaults and one of them — false publication to the media — is apparently related to how the school system communicated about them during a school board meeting.

When asked why the criminal charges do not match the misdeeds in the report, Miyares said the grand jury’s goal wasn’t simply to indict.

“I’m a big believer that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Miyares said. “There’s items in that report that weren’t necessarily chargeable under a criminal code. But that wasn’t necessarily what we were tasked with, right? We were tasked with getting to the broader answers of what happened.”

Miyares also noted that the Loudoun County School Board still hasn’t released its independent investigation into the sexual assault case.

“They paid probably $100,000 to $200,000 of taxpayer money on a report to get to the truth and then never told the public what happened,” Miyares said. “That was the opposite of what we said. We’re going to say, ‘Listen, we’re gonna find what the truth is,’ without fear or prejudice.”

Following the interview, the Loudoun County School Board voted against releasing the independent report on Tuesday night, citing attorney-client privilege and student privacy, according to WTOP’s news partners at NBC Washington.

The legal case against Ziegler and Byard continues, after a judge denied a motion to throw out the charges in January.

Ziegler has two trials scheduled — one for May 22 and the other July 10. Byard’s trial is set for June 20.

Merit scholar-gate investigation

It started with Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, when the magnet school reported a lag between receiving some National Merit Scholarship awards and notifying students about their merit designation in December.

This delayed merit notification issue was then reported at 17 other schools throughout Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

Miyares said the delay is a big deal and launched a civil rights investigation against Fairfax County Public Schools, one day after Youngkin called for the probe in January.

Ranoj Ranjan, a parent of a Thomas Jefferson High School student, told CNN the situation is “not a very big thing.” Ranjan even questioned whether it was done “for a malicious reason.”

Miyares disagreed.

“If you’re from a family that is on a budget, how you pay for college is enormous, absolutely enormous,” Miyares said. “We know of at least 800 different scholarships available to students, that’s available to them if they (received) National Merit Award recognition.”

Miyares also said there’s reason to believe this delayed merit was intentional and based on race and ethnicity.

“We know that over 70% of the students affected are Asian American,” Miyares said. “We know from a public report that one of the parents asked (their child’s school), ‘Why wasn’t my child ever notified?’ From the public report, it is that they did not want to ‘hurt the feelings of some of the other students.'”

Fairfax County schools Superintendent Michelle Reid has denied any sort of systemwide effort to delay these awards.

“Let me clearly state this is not a war on merit, nor was it a concerted systemwide effort to deny recognition to these students,” Reid said in a letter to the community.

Ultimately, Miyares said the National Merit Scholarship program could fix the issue by cutting out the middleman — the schools.

“My hunch is they probably will inform everybody directly,” Miyares said.

Merit vs. equity at Virginia magnet school

On the same day of the delayed-merit investigation, Miyares launched a second civil rights probe into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s admission policy.

Back in 2020, the governor’s school changed its admission policy. Previously, the policy was based on standardized test scores. Then, it shifted to a model focused on the selection of the top students from all of its feeder schools in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. The Fairfax County School Board made the change after concerns over a lack of racial diversity in the school’s student body.

Miyares said the new policy may have violated Virginia law.

“We know that they hired an equity consultant; they paid this person a large amount of money. They recommended equal outcomes for every student without exception, even if you have to treat them purposefully unequally,” Miyares said. “And we saw they adopted a new equity-based admission standard — they went away from a merit standard to the admission standard — which led to a 20% decrease — in just a single year — in Asian student enrollment, which I found astonishing to see that dramatic of a drop.”

Miyares did not have an alternative solution to the school’s lack of diversity.

“I do believe in equal opportunity,” Miyares said. “But when you go to forced equal outcomes, inevitably, what happens is, you’re hurting other groups, as well.”

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a reporter and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022. On the show, Garrett takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in the D.C. region.

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