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Youngkin pushing to undo measures that increased diversity at governor’s schools

Bust of person's head
A bust of Maggie L. Walker sit outside of Maggie Walker Governor's School. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's note: This article was updated Feb. 3 at 6:33 p.m. following an interview with Maggie Walker Governor’s School Director Bob Lowerre

An education bill supported by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is making its way through the General Assembly and now heads to the full House of Delegates for a vote. The measure would undo recent efforts by Virginia governor’s schools – like the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond – to increase student diversity.

When presenting his bill in a subcommittee meeting, Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) said all it would do is ensure that the admissions processes to governor’s schools are “race-blind,” and purely merit-based: on things like standardized tests and grades.

“It's pretty simple,” Davis said. “It just says admission policies are race-blind.”

But the bill is not simple and seeks to prohibit a wide array of admissions practices, some of which are currently being utilized by at least two governor’s schools in Virginia: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia and the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond.

The admissions processes for both schools now include geographic-based elements that would be prohibited under Davis’ bill. For example, the top 1.5% of eighth-graders at every Fairfax County middle school feeding into TJ are recommended for admission.

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University,  says these geographic-based approaches are permissible under current federal law, though considering the race of individual students in efforts to improve diversity is illegal.

“You can still consider the impacts of inequality on a student, whether it's neighborhood inequality, school-level inequality,” Siegel-Hawley said. “I think the focus on the feeder school patterns grows out of that understanding that neighborhoods and schools shape opportunity for students or restrict [opportunities.]” 

Dennis Parker, executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, says Davis’ bill appears to be directed at a 2007 Supreme Court case, the leading Supreme Court decision dealing with the question of voluntary desegregation initiatives.

“In that decision, the holding is that there is a clear, compelling interest that exists in avoiding racial isolation, and also an interest in achieving a diverse student population,” Parker said. “Justice Kennedy, who wrote the controlling opinion, pointed to a number of things that could be done to bring about those goals.

​​”It [Davis’ bill] basically tries to negate the very things that the Supreme Court said were acceptable and constitutional and tries to prevent the use of those strategies as a way of achieving diverse schools in Virginia.”

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Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) at a 2020 committee meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Meanwhile, a group of Asian American parents in and around Fairfax County have filed a lawsuit alleging the new admissions system at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is discriminatory.

The lawsuit states that based on school district data, analysts “project that Asian-American student enrollment at TJ will drop from 73% under the merit-based, race-blind admissions system to 31% under the new racial-balancing admissions system for the Class of 2025. No other racial group is projected to lose seats. The greatest beneficiary of the new admissions system in terms of increased population will be white students.”

Siegel-Hawley says the TJ litigation is a “distortion of what we understand discrimination to be.” She says that distortion “blocks the empathy that you might develop if you really understood the history of racial discrimination in our society and its ongoing impacts.”

She added that the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is supporting the TJ parents, has led the way on legal challenges to voluntary integration efforts in other states for decades.

Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says the Pacific Legal Foundation’s strategy “since day one is to get the United States Supreme Court to declare any consideration of race to be unconstitutional…that has always been their goal.”

But Black says TJ’s admissions changes are not unconstitutional.

“They [school districts] can redraw district lines, they can engage in targeted recruiting, they can take factors other than race into account in student assignment,” Black said. “Basically, any kind of strategy that they can come up with that will enhance integration or diversity, they can do that without really being second-guessed, so long as they do not classify students based upon their individual race.”

Because of the pending litigation, and because Davis’ bill “goes a lot farther than just race-blind and prohibits the consideration of a lot of other factors,” Stacy Haney, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, spoke out in opposition of the bill during a subcommittee meeting Tuesday.

“We believe that decisions on admissions should be left to the local school board or school boards,” Haney added.

There are 14 school districts in Central Virginia that recommend students for admission to the Maggie Walker school. In 2020, the Chesterfield School Board unanimously approved changes to how it recommends students, taking a geographically based approach. Davis’ bill would ban this.

But using this approach led to the most racially diverse class of incoming students at Maggie Walker in years. Prior to that change, the district hadn’t sent hardly any Black students to the governor’s school in the past two decades, according to an investigation by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The RTD investigation led students at Maggie Walker to do their own reporting about the history of their school and current efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. Student journalists have also been involved in conversations with administrators about several of the issues they’re reporting on, including Jabberwork editors-in-chief Mona Garimella and Annabel Tang.

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Mona Garimella (left) and Annabel Tang (right), editors-in-chief of Jabberwork, the student newspaper for Maggie Walker Governor's School. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Both Garimella and Tang went to middle school in Henrico County and are following conversations around any potential changes to the county’s admissions process to Maggie Walker. Tang says many students recommended from Henrico County Public Schools to Maggie Walker come from one middle school, Moody Middle School in the western half of the county, which is a “sticking point” in discussions about diversity and inclusion.

Personally, Tang says she thinks the Chesterfield changes benefit the school.

“It allowed a lot more opportunities for students who historically haven't had those opportunities to come here,” Tang said.

Garimella says it’s a bit surreal for her school to be part of an ongoing debate around admissions policies.

"This is just our lives. We're just high schoolers, we just go here. And it's weird to see everything be debated. And a lot of it coming down to politics," she said.

Carrie Kahwajy, a Maggie Walker alum and education chair for the Chesterfield County branch of the NAACP, was also very happy to see the changes Chesterfield County made that ensure students from all district middle schools are recommended for admission.

“That meant that you would have students from Falling Creek Middle have an opportunity to present to Chesterfield County reasons why they would be a good candidate to the governor's School, whereas before their voices weren't being heard,” Kahwajy said. “Their applications are being drowned out by the dozens and dozens that were being presented by, say, a school like Robious Middle School, which was a center for the gifted.”

According to Bob Lowerre, director of Maggie Walker, the school temporarily waived all on-site test components of its admissions exams – including its achievement and aptitude tests – for 2021 admissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kahwajy said it’s important to point out that the average GPA for incoming 8th-grade students admitted in 2021 actually increased from 4.05 in 2019 and 2020 to 4.08 in 2021.

“So removing the test actually increased the GPA. And so this dialogue about how removing the test would water down the admissions process or not achieve highly qualified candidates is just absurd,” Kahwajy said. “It's producing highly qualified candidates as you can see. It is reflected in the GPA.”

Gauging the impact of dropping the tests is difficult due to further COVID-19 disruptions, Lowerre said. For example, he says, he’s not sure how many kids had help from parents while writing essays from home.

“Just take 21 out of the mix,” Lowerre said. “Any kind of data related to 2021 on admissions is just…comparing apples to oranges.”

The next incoming class – starting school at Maggie Walker in August 2022 – will be the first group of students admitted under the school’s newly-updated admissions process that permanently removes the former achievement test. The average GPA of 2022 incoming students will be made public in April, which Lowerre will be paying close attention to.

“We're not changing anything about the way we instruct kids here,” Lowerre told VPM News. “We're not changing our program, we're not changing the expectations. So when people talk about lowering standards, standards aren't being touched. We're just trying to open the door wider to communities that have been underrepresented historically.”

Kahwajy says she’s worried these recent efforts could be undone if Davis’ bill passes. She’s also worried about another aspect of the bill that would prohibit governor’s schools from collecting “information on students’ race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin during the application process for admission to such school.”

“When they look back and say, ‘why do we have a cohort of students that isn't diverse,’ you won't be able to see who applied,” Kahwajy said.

Del. Michelle Maldonado (D-Manassas) told VPM News that Davis’ legislation would deepen racial inequities that already exist. For example, only 1% of students admitted to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the class of 2024 were Black. More than 10% of Fairfax County residents are Black.

“We have heard a lot about ‘we're all in the same boat.’ But the reality is we're all in the same ocean, but our boats are not equally equipped,” Moldanado said while speaking in opposition of the bill. “And the inequities that we are seeing…are historical.”

Lowerre says one element of Davis’ bill could actually help to improve equity in his schools’ admissions. The bill would require local school districts that send students to a governor’s school to ensure all middle schools offer “coursework, curriculum, and instruction that is comparable in content and in rigor in order to provide each student in each such middle school with the opportunity to gain admission to and excel academically at such Governor's school.”

"It's putting the onus on us to work with the middle schools and say, okay, here's what our kids need to be successful," he said.

Access to courses, however, is not the only obstacle to success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Lack of healthcare access and exposure to trauma, among other factors, affect student outcomes as early as kindergarten.

Siegel-Hawley says she thinks the bill is “part of a deeply cynical effort to move towards complete color blindness in the law. And doing so would require the courts to go against decades of [legal] precedent. This has been central to the conservative movement, since the backlash to the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s. That’s six decades in the making.

“The philosophy, or the push, seems to be: if we don't talk about racism, if we don't collect data about it…and most importantly, if we don't make any policy or legal move to redress the impacts of racism, then it will go away,” Siegel-Hawley said. “That's the philosophy undergirding these different efforts. And I think it requires a really ahistorical understanding of the role of racism in this country.”

​​Parker, who has been involved in court-ordered desegregation cases across the country for over 30 years, says the legislation is particularly disturbing when considering Virginia’s history. 

“The first response [of Virginia lawmakers] to Brown v. Board of Education in 1956 was to announce and to vote into effect a policy of massive resistance to the order to desegregate,” Parker said. “The next step was to actually take steps to close down public schools in areas where the federal courts had ordered the desegregation of the schools. And so it's particularly tragic now to see something appearing to be coming full circle, and to move us back into a time when our schools were separate and unequal.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article did not specify that the 2021 Maggie Walker admissions tests were canceled because of COVID-19. The school later chose to remove elements of its admissions test prior to the 2022 test in an effort to boost diversity. We have clarified that language.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 13 school districts send students to Maggie Walker. The correct figure is 14. We have updated the story and apologize for the error.