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Video: Debate Gets *VERY* Heated in Senate Education Committee as Bill to Increase Diversity at Virginia “Governor’s Schools” Is Debated…and Defeated

Sen. Petersen claims the bill "stigmatize[s] a very hard-working community in Fairfax County which I am proud to represent and be married into"; Sen. Locke responded, "there's always this stone wall, and we're hearing it here this morning from some of our own members sitting here"

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The saga of reforming admissions to Virginia’s “governor’s schools,” particularly “TJ” (the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County) has been going on for a while now. For some background, see Fairfax County School Board Chooses “Holistic Review” as New Admissions Policy for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (“TJ”); Audio: VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni Argues for Changes in Admissions to Governor’s Schools to Increase Diversity; Says “It will only make these schools better”; Video: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Alumni Speak in Support of Merit Lottery Plan; Loudoun County School Board Sends Letter to Fairfax County School Board Expressing Concerns Over Changes to “TJ” Admissions Process; Thomas Jefferson High School Alumni Action Group Endorses Merit Lottery System for “TJ” Admissions; Prince William County School Board Votes Unanimously In Support of Improving Diversity of “TJ” Admissions, Establishing Regional Governing Board.

To help deal with this situation – in which Latino and Black students are chronically underrepresented at “TJ” – there’s a bill (HB2305 by Del. Roslyn Tyler) that’s been working its way through the Virginia General Assembly, and that would require “the [Virginia] Board of Education to issue guidance on the governance of academic year Governor’s Schools, including communication and outreach practices, admissions policies, and guidelines on diversity, equity, and inclusion training.” The bill passed the House of Delegates easily (58-41) on February 2, with every Democrat and a few Republicans voting “aye.” Next stop: the State Senate, where the bill was debated and voted upon this morning in the Education and Health Committee, chaired by Sen. Louise Lucas and comprised of 9 Democrats and 6 Republicans.

So you’d think this bill would be reported out of that committee easily, right? Well…nope, as you can see from the above screenshot of the 9-6 vote to “Pass by Indefinitely” (“PBI”) aka kill the bill for this year at least. Note that among those voting to “PBI” the bill were four Democrats – Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Lynwood Lewis, Sen. Chap Petersen and Sen. Dick Saslaw. Also, check out the video, in which there were some…uh, “interesting” things said. For instance:

  • Sen. Ghazala Hashmi explained that this bill aims to increase access to the  governor’s schools for historically under-served students, and moved to report the bill from committee.
  • There was a back-and-forth about whether opponents of the bill from the public should be allowed to speak; Committee Chair Lucas ruled that they would have to hear both sides of the debate, and since only opponents were there this morning, the committee wouldn’t hear public testimony.
  • Sen. Chap Petersen said “this is a huge issue in our community,” that TJ is the “#1 high school in the United States,” an “extraordinary high school” whose population is “80% minority.”
  • Sen. Lucas interrupted Sen. Petersen to ask whether, when he talks about “80% minority,” does he mean “people who look like me [African American]?” 
  • Sen. Petersen then clarified that the population of “TJ” is “about 70% Asian – people who like like my kids – my kids.” According to Sen. Petersen, “that is not based on any intentional policy that I’m aware of, it’s just, those are the kids who for whatever reason have qualified under the criteria that they’ve had, and that’s become an issue in the community.” Sen. Petersen added that “a lot of these children are immigrants, children of immigrants, and have focused on their academics and they’ve done well.” He said he’s “very concerned about passing policies which – for lack of a better word, I hear the word ‘shaming’ a lot, that people that have been successful as immigrants are somehow overrepresented or overserved. I don’t believe that’s the case.” Sen. Petersen said he agreed on the need to get “different populations into our governor’s schools and I think there are ways to do it,” but said he’s “very concerned [about] the tone that has been set by this bill…it’s become a lightning rod and it’s been serving to stigmatize a very hard-working community in Fairfax County which I am proud to represent and be married into – and that’s the Korean community, the Indian community, the Bengali community…”
  • Sen. Mamie Locke said she participated in a work group on this issue and listened to various constituencies talking about lack of diversity in the governor’s schools, not just at “TJ.” Sen. Locke said the issue at “TJ” actually came from students “and that they would like to have more diversity…and that’s what we kept hearing, over and over again, but there’s always this stone wall, and we’re hearing it here this morning from some of our own members sitting here, and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
  • Sen. Hashmi said she was also part of the work group, is Asian American, and had “an outpouring of support from my constituents, who are Maggie Walker Governor’s School alumni, and they are hugely supportive of the bill…countless emails in support of this measure.” Sen. Hashmi added that the educational inequities that are in place from an early age “prevents a student who would bring great diversity, great promise…they are excluded by the educational…inequities that we have in place.” She added, “I find it personally offensive when people make the argument that increasing diversity is somehow going to lower the academic standard; that is simply not the case, and it is offensive to make that argument.” Sen. Hashmi then clarified that she didn’t mean to imply that any committee members made that statement.
  • Sen. Janet Howell said this issue “impacts my constituents quite a bit,” adding that it’s “ludicrous that we have fewer than 20 African-American and Latino students admitted to TJ; that’s ludicrous from Fairfax County, it’s insulting…so I’m very supportive of this bill. This has been a festering wound…for many years, and it’s time we lance it.”
  • Sen. Saslaw said his emails “ran almost 20 or 30 to 1 against what we’re proposing to do here – overwhelmingly against it.” Saslaw argued that the areas that feed “TJ” are Arlington, Fairfax County, Fairfax City, Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park and Loudoun County. According to Saslaw, “they are approximately 61% Caucasian; the Caucasians in that school are 19%.” Saslaw added that the “Asian community is about 16%, they are 70% of the school; the rest would be Latino and African-American, and they would be the remaining percentages.” Saslaw said a large percentage are immigrants “and have done everything they can to improve their situation, and they consider this bill highly offensive.”
  • Sen. Lucas noted that Saslaw had “lumped Latinos and African-Americans together.” Sen. Saslaw tried to deny it, but Sen. Lucas said there’s no doubt that’s exactly what he said.
  • Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R) then raised the issue of charter schools; Sen. Lucas said “we’re not talking about charter schools right now, we’re talking about the governor’s schools.”
  • Sen. Hashmi then moved to report the bill, to which Sen. Saslaw responded by motioning to pass the bill indefinitely. The vote was 9-6 to “PBI” the bill.
  • Sen. Lucas’ last comment was, “we’ll overcome one day…” 

 

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