Legislation to ban racial discrimination in admissions policies at Virginia’s highly regarded Governor’s Schools has passed a key Senate committee, just days after a federal judge found one such school is discriminating against Asian Americans.
Republican Del. Glenn Davis sponsored the bill after Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite public school in Northern Virginia, overhauled its admissions policies amid criticism that Black and Hispanic students were woefully underrepresented in the student body.
The changes at TJ, as it's known, prompted a backlash from parents, including Asian American families who felt the changes targeted them for their success at the school. Before the changes were implemented, Asian Americans represented more than 70% of the student body.
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A parents' group sued to block the changes, and last week a federal judge in Alexandria ruled that the new policy discriminates against Asian Americans. The judge found that impermissible “racial balancing” was what drove the Fairfax County School Board to implement the changes.
The school board is weighing an appeal.
On Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 10-5 to pass Davis' bill and send it to the full Senate for a vote.
The bill was amended significantly at the request of Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen to simplify it. The amended bill now states simply that racial discrimination is prohibited in admissions policies. It eliminates language that sought to broadly outline what would constitute discrimination.
Petersen said simplifying the language leaves it to courts to define what constitutes discrimination. He highlighted last week's ruling as evidence that the kind of changes adopted by Fairfax County amount to discrimination.
“The bottom line is the (TJ) policy was adopted in order to, frankly, reduce the number of Asian Americans that were attending Thomas Jefferson," Petersen said. “And all you have to do is look at all the public comments that were being made at the time."
Because federal law already bans racial discrimination, it's unclear whether the bill, if enacted, would have any practical effect. But Petersen said the bill makes an important statement nevertheless.
The bill was also a part of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's legislative agenda. While the Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats, has killed much of his agenda, some of Youngkin's education bills have been successful. The Senate passed a bill that ends school mask mandates, which Youngkin signed and took effect this week. The Senate also passed legislation awaiting Youngkin's signature that requires parental notification when students are assigned reading materials with sexually explicit content.
In other action Thursday, the Senate killed, on an 8-7 vote, legislation that would have allowed local school boards to let homeschoolers participate in high school sports. The bill's sponsor, Republican Del. Marie March, said 35 states have enacted similar legislation. Opponents argued that athletes representing a school in interscholastic competition should be students at that school.