A Democratic-led Senate committee on Thursday effectively killed a bill to diversify Virginia governor’s schools that was introduced by Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, and endorsed by state Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.
The proposal met a swift end on the motion of Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, whose district includes a prestigious regional magnet school where fewer than 5% of the more than 1,800 students in attendance are Black or Latino.
That school, the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, was at the center of a debate Thursday that devolved into disagreement over what constitutes diversity.
Several senators questioned whether measures intended to boost diversity in the gifted programs would disadvantage other students, including other students of color.
The bill directs the Virginia Board of Education to create guidelines for the state’s 19 governor’s schools to address pipeline issues and to develop best practices for being more inclusive of underserved groups, such as Black and Latino students.
Qarni said through a spokesperson that he was “disappointed” in the 9-6 vote.
“I can tell you my emails were ... overwhelmingly against it,” Saslaw said of his constituents’ concerns about the potential impact on Thomas Jefferson. “Many of these are parents, many a large percentage who came here as immigrants and have done everything they can to improve their situation, and they consider this bill highly offensive.”
“Its population is 80% minority,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said of Thomas Jefferson.
Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, a Black woman who chairs the Senate Health and Education Committee, objected.
“For people who look like me, I would appreciate it if you would put a better definition to ‘minority,’ ” she said. “I know you’re not talking about people who look like me, so could you please be more specific?”
Time and again, researchers have shown that Black and Latino students are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs.
In a study done by the Education Trust, a nonprofit that conducts research to close educational equity gaps, researchers found that diversity in gifted program is lacking across the country, including in districts that are overwhelmingly made up of Black and Latino students.
Educator bias can also affect who teachers view as gifted, which can widen the gap of who is selected to be a part of gifted programs.
The dynamic exists at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, where 7% of the students are Black and 1.1% are Latino. In the 2019-2020 school year, 1 in 3 students from the 12 feeder districts were Black.
Rasheeda Creighton, a Black graduate of Maggie Walker who sits on the gifted school’s strategic plan implementation committee, said she was stunned to see the bill get killed.
“There’s not a consistency among the selection process, and there definitely is a culture problem across all 19 academic year governors,” she said. “This is a no-brainer. We are not dictating exactly what those policies should be.
“We are simply saying, ‘Board of Education, please take the time to issue guidelines, with community input, with stakeholder input that will govern the governor’s School.’ ”
While the bill directs the state’s education department to create guidance to diversify the governor’s schools, it does not force the schools themselves to do so.
Lawmakers who supported the bill wanted to see guidance for best practices on how to be more inclusive of historically underserved groups and conducting programs related to diversity.
The legislation also states the VBOE ought to include guidance to strengthen the pipeline to feeder schools.
State data shows that of Thomas Jefferson’s 1,809 students, just 32 are Black and 55 are Hispanic. Asian students are overwhelmingly overrepresented. The population at the school, which has been named the top high school in the U.S., is not reflective of its feeder districts.
State data shows that 17% of the students from the contributing districts are Asian, while they make up 72% of the school’s enrollment. Meanwhile, nearly 12% of students from the feeder districts are Black and 27.3% are Hispanic.
Petersen said that TJ consisting largely of Asian students, who he pointed out look like his own children, is not because of any intentional policy, but instead, because those students qualified under the guidelines.
“A lot of these children are immigrants, children of immigrants, and they’ve focused on their academics and done well,” he said. “I am very concerned about passing policies which, for lack of better words, I hear the word ‘shaming’ a lot. That people who have been successful as immigrants are somehow overrepresented or overserved.
“I don’t believe that’s the case.”
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said she repeatedly heard from students at TJ and other governor’s schools who wanted to see more diversity. She also took aim at her colleagues for blocking those efforts.
“The issue at TJ actually came from students about the lack of diversity in their schools, and that they would like to have more diversity,” she said. “But there were problems in trying to get to that diversity, and that they want more.”
She added, “But there’s always this stonewalling that we’re hearing in here this morning from some of our own members sitting here. That’s what I’m concerned about.”
Makya Little, a Black graduate of Thomas Jefferson who leads the Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action group, said she was stunned that it was Democrats who killed the bill.
“If you consider the Democratic Party, typically leading on issues of equity, to have two Democratic senators speak in opposition to a bill that would create guidance on how to make public institutions more equitably accessible, that was hurtful and really blindsided me,” she said.
Little and Creighton said it will be incumbent on local school boards to do something.
In the Richmond area, Richmond, Henrico County and Chesterfield County all are working to overhaul their gifted programming selection process.
Chesterfield’s School Board recently changed its guidelines for selection at Maggie Walker to be based on school selection instead of countywide, which would ensure an equal number of students from every middle school are able to attend the governor’s school.
Thomas Jefferson recently removed its admissions test and $100 application fee, and Maggie Walker waived its admissions test due to COVID-19. Bob Lowerre, head of school, said Maggie Walker is considering removing the admissions test altogether.
The Virginia Board of Education can create guidance without legislative direction.