Editor: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology is in the crosshairs of Virginia Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni and Fairfax County Superintendent Scott Brabrand.
Lamentably, yet again, a miniscule number of black and Hispanic students were admitted to TJ’s most recent incoming class. Over the summer, Secretary Qarni convened a secretive “task force” to sketch out their preferred solutions. His conclusion: “It’s certainly not a difficult problem to fix. The problem has been a lack of political will.” On Sept. 15, Brabrand described his remedy; admitting students using a lottery.
As a parent of a TJ graduate, a former teacher and education-reform professional, I too am distressed over the dearth of black and Hispanic students at TJ. However, I am equally troubled that it appears Superintendent Brabrand and Secretary Qarni are slapping on a Band-Aid solution that will erode TJ’s merit-based admission standards (despite their protestations to the contrary). Not only will this short-sightedness fail to administer deep healing to a festering wound, it will create more problems.
Both Qarni and Brabrand have placed inordinate blame for the racial disparities on the admissions test. However, tests were not an insurmountable obstacle in years gone by. In “Wealth, Poverty & Politics,” Thomas Sowell states notes that in 1938, “the proportion of blacks attending Stuyvesant High School, a selective high school, was almost as high as the proportion of blacks in the population of New York City.”
Unfortunately, more recently public systems have lost their way. As with TJ, Sowell describes declines in black admissions to Stuyvesant, “In 1979, blacks were 12.9 percent of students at Stuyvesant, falling to 4.8 percent in 1995.” In 2020, the New York Times reported 1.1 percent of the incoming freshman class is black. Stunningly, this statistic coincides with the growing ranks of blacks in the upper two-thirds of the income distribution.
While public systems have largely floundered, faith-based and charter schools have made phenomenal progress and, according to a recently released Harvard study, low-income black students benefited the most. Yet public-education leaders in Northern Virginia has squelched all previous attempts to establish them here.
Besides charters schools, we could build a pipeline of qualified students using effective enrichment programs. There are outstanding examples around the country.
Brabrand went so far as to disparage hard-working parents – most of whom are Asian – for supposedly using outside “test prep” to ready students for the TJ admissions test, implying this is why they are so successful. He fails to mention that his school district provides free test-preparation classes to families who cannot afford it. Why hasn’t this laudable effort helped?
If the effort of Qarni and Brabrand succeeds, it will either harm students or compromise TJ’s public purpose, or both. The stakes are too high to let Secretary Qarni and his “secretive task force” paper over embarrassing optics, rather than actually helping larger percentages of black and Hispanic students excel at the highest levels.
Now more than ever, our national security and economic prosperity require a deep bench of inventors, mathematicians and technology business leaders.
Cheryl Buford, Vienna
Buford served as the associate director for program analysis and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2017, she was a Virginia House of Delegates candidate and in 2019 a Fairfax County School Board candidate.