Thomas Jefferson School Dome

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a regional magnet school on Braddock Road in Fairfax County. 

Legislation to be considered during the 2022 General Assembly session would slap down the Fairfax County School Board’s recent revisions to admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology.

A measure patroned by Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) would effectively remove the ability of school districts to use race, ethnicity or other criteria to provide preferential treatment in admission to Governor’s Schools across the commonwealth, either directly or indirectly.

Although it would apply to all 19 Governor’s Schools across the commonwealth, the measure clearly seems aimed at Thomas Jefferson, where the Fairfax County School Board voted slightly more than a year ago to amend admissions policies to downplay competitive academic factors and instead impose a modified quota system, providing admissions slots to a broader array of students based on their middle school.

That change, critics contend (and are challenging in court), was designed to reduce the large percentage (often two-thirds of the incoming freshman class) of students with an Asian heritage who won admission under the longstanding admissions policy, which focused largely on the results of an entrance exam. (School Board members in 2020 eliminated the admissions test entirely.)

Targeting a group of students based on race in this case is unconstitutional, legal challenges that are working their way through the courts contend.

If passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by incoming Gov. Glenn Youngkin, school districts that host Governor’s Schools would be allowed only to use “traditional academic success factors” for admissions purposes, including “standardized-test results that are not normed for different student groupings, academic grades and similar academic records, extracurricular activities and achievements that are relevant to success at a specialized school, and academic recommendations by teachers and other school officials.”

The bill also puts the onus on the school districts to prove they are acting within those parameters, if their decisions are challenged in court. To get the measure to the governor’s desk, Davis would need to hold the votes of nearly all Republicans in the House of Delegates and state Senate, and convince at least one Democratic senator to back the proposal.

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, often to the grumbling of officials in other participating school districts.

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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