RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A bill banning Virginia’s elite governor’s schools from discriminating during the admissions process passed with bipartisan support on Tuesday.
It comes less than a month after a federal judge struck down changes at one school after finding they disadvantaged Asian-American students.
The 26 to 13 vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate means the bill is likely to be signed into law. The House of Delegates, where Republicans are in charge, is expected to agree to the Senate’s amendments, according to bill sponsor Delegate Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach).
Opponents argue the weakened bill has no legal impact because it largely reiterates existing federal law.
Still, the campaign promise from Governor Glenn Youngkin takes a clear stance against new admissions criteria that increased racial diversity at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ).
“You can have any type of neutral criteria you want but if you’re using it to discriminate against a group, in this case Asian Americans, that’s illegal under federal law and if we pass this bill it will be illegal under state law. Statements are important and we have a chance to make a statement,” said Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) before Tuesday’s vote.
Prompted by a state-ordered push to increase diversity at governor’s schools, TJ scrapped its standardized testing requirements and removed the $100 application fee. The school began guaranteeing a certain number of slots to students from each eligible middle school. The new method also considered certain “experience factors,” such as an applicant’s attendance at a middle school deemed historically underrepresented, eligibility for free and reduced-price meals or status as an English language learner.
While the policy changes don’t explicitly mention race, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton said the school board’s public statements indicate their intent was to change the racial composition of the school.
According to the ruling, the proportion of Asian-American students admitted for the Class of 2025 fell to about 54% after the changes were implemented. That’s down from 73% in the previous academic year.
“Asian American applicants are disproportionately deprived of a level playing field,” wrote Hilton.
Meanwhile, the share of Black students increased from 1% to 7% and Hispanic students increased from 3% to 11% of the student body, according to Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield).
“At the same time, we also saw increases in our student success metrics,” Hashmi said.
Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) accused the federal judge of cherry-picking evidence and called the bill unnecessary.
Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said it does nothing to increase diversity.
“That is the actual problem. This bill does not solve that problem,” McClellan said. “I’m not sure this bill really does anything other than provide a talking point for an issue that frankly is being used to stir disagreement.”
Delegate Davis disagrees. He said part of the bill will expand access to rigorous instructional resources that he believes are at the root of the issue.
“We all knew early on that the lack of diversity wasn’t because of the admissions. It was because of the lack of diversity in the pipeline, the lack of opportunity that students had in all middle schools,” Davis said. “This bill ensures that does happen regardless of that child’s zip code.”
TJ Alumni Action Group Vice President Jiunwei Chen, who is Asian-American, applauds the changes the school has made. He thinks the impact on his community is overstated and the model is aimed at increasing socioeconomic diversity.
“For them to sort of use this as a weapon infuriates a lot of progressive Asians like, no, this is not an example of anti-Asian hate. You’re just using it to further your political goals,” Chen said.
Harry Jackson, who is Black, argues the new criteria hurts opportunities for advanced learners within Black and Hispanic communities. Jackson, the parent of a current TJ student and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, thinks the General Assembly should double down on the message the judge sent.
“It was a win against racism. That was exactly how I felt,” Jackson said.