After racial justice protests gripped the country and politicians pledged progress, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni felt confident in his paragraph-long pitch for lawmakers to boost diversity at the state’s governor’s schools.
The bill, HB2305, was less muscular than an earlier two-and-a-half page version that never got a hearing.
But when Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, brought forward the effort to disrupt a pipeline to the elite public magnet schools that historically has shut out Black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students, debate quickly soured.
Lawmakers – locked in talks that centered on the Thomas Jefferson High School for Sciences and Technology in Fairfax County – ended up at odds over whether the admissions process even needs to be changed.
“You had a school that was the number one rated high school in America," said state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who voted down the proposal.
The measure would have laid the groundwork for wholesale change but stopped short of requiring it; instead it asked the Virginia Board of Education to craft guidelines “on the importance of increasing access to Governor's Schools for historically underserved students."
Qarni had hoped the state would begin untangling the interwoven challenges blocking children from accessing potentially life-changing education.
Virginia has a long history of local control leading to inequitable outcomes in education. And while incremental reforms to selection processes for elite programs have begun in some places, Qarni sees more room for movement.
The patchwork methods local school districts and governing boards have been using to identify and advance gifted students aren't working if they're leaving huge groups of children behind, he said.
“It’s fragmented. There’s not robust guidelines on how gifted education should be done, how we should accept children, [or] how children should enter and get the programs,” he said. “And then what is the true purpose of gifted education?”
In some cases, feeder school systems next door to one another have different rules for picking students who ultimately go on to attend the same school.
Advocates for equity frustrated with the legislature's inaction have sharpened their focus on the governing body that oversees that state’s public primary and secondary schools, the Virginia Board of Education.
“I was definitely disappointed because I felt like it was a common sense, equity and inclusion bill,” said Makya Little, a Black alumna of Thomas Jefferson.
Qarni, a cabinet-level appointee of Gov. Ralph Northam, welcomes the scrutiny.
This three-part series, produced as part of reporter Kenya Hunter’s participation in an Education Writers Association mentorship program, examines the lack of diversity at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School and others across the state.
The investigation found that white children were nearly four times more likely to gain admissions to the school over 20 years; that Black youth who were selected felt isolated and unsupported; and that local and state-level responses to the pipeline problem have largely failed to yield wholesale change.
Black children make up 22% of the state’s public school enrollment. Rarely are they represented in proportion to the overall population at the state’s magnet schools. State data shows that Black students account for less than 10% of enrollment at 12 of the state’s 19 governor’s schools, and less than 5% at 8.
About 7% of freshman entering Thomas Jefferson this year are Black – an improvement from just over 1% the year prior.
The school’s makeup dominated pointed discussions last February of HB2305, which was drafted by Qarni after the formation of a task force launched to examine access issues at governor's schools.
The group found that economically disadvantaged students are largely locked out of opportunities to attend the elite schools, whose graduates often go on to attend Ivy League colleges.
But when it came time to chip away at those barriers, Petersen and state Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and a majority of the Senate Education and Health committee, had concerns.
Saslaw, who did not return an interview request, ultimately moved to spike the bill. Petersen joined in voting it down, saying it had anti-Asian undertones (more than 70% of students who attend TJ are Asian).
“There was this assumption that somehow the system was not working, that somehow it was defective,” Petersen said in an interview.
His comments at the time, along with Saslaw’s, earned a slam from the state’s legislative Black Caucus, who deemed their pronouncements “racist.”
“We must fervently and consistently reject any suggestion that these educational inequities - particularly for Black, Latinx, and low-income students - are the result of inherent intellectual inferiority or a lack of hard work. These false narratives must finally be put to an end,” the caucus said in a statement. “The reality is that the status quo prevents and excludes Black and Latinx students from effectively accessing equitable admission to Virginia’s Governor’s Schools.”
The African American Superintendent's Advisory Council, which advises State Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane on equity issues for the state's Black students, held a meeting within 10 minutes of the bill’s demise, Little said.
“I basically was like ‘If we stay silent on this issue, I don’t know why we have this council,” Little recalled. “It was designed to advocate for students who look like us. If we stay silent, to me, it’s pointless.”
The council wrote the Virginia Board of Education to demand action, which it can take without legislative direction.
“Consistent inequities in access make the development of guidance for the governance of Governor’s Schools to increase access for historically underserved students imperative,” the council wrote.
Many other individuals likewise sent in public comments, urging the Board to take up the work. A spokesperson said the board is working on regulations - but they won’t be done until at least next year.
Anne Holton, a board member and former Virginia Secretary of Education, said there’s a need for action, but it’s unclear what kind.
“I definitely think the state could play a role,” said Holton, speaking on her own behalf. “But whether it should be regulatory, which would mean the board, or whether there is the power of the bully pulpit that the secretary could exercise more, or are there other levers of influence? But certainly the ideal way to fix it the issue [is] the boards of these institutions.”
The Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, which occupies a building that housed an all-Black high school during legal segregation, has been slow to change.
While the freshman class is more diverse than in recent years, white students who apply have been admitted to the school at a rate nearly four times that of Black students over the past 20 years, data provided by the Governor's school shows.
The school is the subject of an open federal Office of Civil Rights complaint filed in 2013 by a group including Paul Fleischer, a retired Richmond Public Schools gifted and talented teacher and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who studies segregation and sat on Qarni’s task force.
In it, they allege that the Governor’s school's admissions process "shows clear evidence of persistent bias against Black and... Latino students." The problems persisted even after a 118 page study of the school done by the University of Virginia offered various policy recommendations on its admissions and recruitment processes.
“The board had, for a long period of time, a number of policy recommendations, and chose to do nothing,” Siegel-Hawley said of the complaint.
The complaint predates the tenure of Maggie Walker's current director, Bob Lowerre, who says he is adamant about attempting change at the Governor's school, including its admissions process and school culture. His administration has since created a strategic plan that aims to be more welcoming to historically underserved populations at the school. He is also adamant that the school is not "lowering standards," as many detractors of diversifying governor's schools have claimed.
Lowerre ultimately doesn't control who gets accepted into the school. Maggie Walker owns the application materials, but local school districts select which students they'll send.
Qarni credits individual localities and schools that have taken steps to build equity into their processes. Chesterfield County Public Schools, for example, just recently sent its most diverse class yet to Maggie Walker after switching from a county-wide to a two-phase selection process, which starts at individual schools.
But an earlier proposal Qarni crafted for the legislature would have required swifter movement across the state. A draft targeted changes to admissions at Thomas Jefferson and Maggie Walker in the form of a pilot program.
If passed, the bill would have required schools to strike course requirements not directly related to the school’s mission (for example, no need to have taken Algebra I to attend a government affairs magnet program). It also would have eliminated admissions tests to the schools for three years.
The unpublished copy, obtained by The Richmond Times-Dispatch, sought to bolster economically disadvantaged students’ chances of attendance.
“Students who are living in concentrated poverty, they have all these missing resources. All they need is a little bit of scaffolding and support, so they can thrive,” he said of the potential score increase for economically disadvantaged students. He also noted that the more poor students a school might have, the likelihood that their resources get more and more “thin.”
State research found that economically disadvantaged students made up 18% of governor’s school enrollment in the 2018-2019 school year while making up 40% of Virginia’s public school population. State data also shows that economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be Black and Latino.
“I think that us as human beings have to realize that everybody's coming from different situations,” he said. “Other [families]... their children are going to school, the reason they get financial support is because their parents cannot afford that. We have to understand that we have to empathize that each individual has different needs.”
Lamont Bagby, who chairs the legislative Black Caucus and also once served on the Henrico County School Board, said he liked the more stringent proposal.
“I would have loved to support it,” Bagby said in an interview. “It’s sort of attempting to level the playing field for that student that doesn’t have all the resources, but is still showing up.”
The proposal targeted busting up pipelines in competitive districts that see many selected candidates come from a single middle school, with a rule limiting each middle school’s share of attendees to 5% of the cohort (unless the locality only has one middle school).
An open enrollment analysis of Richmond Public Schools found that many who apply for specialty programs in the district come from two middle schools, Albert Hill and Binford middle schools, and private schools.
In one lawsuit challenging the Fairfax County School Board's new admissions policy for TJ in Fairfax, families said that the new policy, which set aside a certain number of slots for every feeder middle school, would hurt Asian American families clustered in a handful of middle schools that send a large number of students to TJ.
Sometimes, the problems seem intractable, said Siegel-Hawley.
New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio just announced that the school system would be phasing out their gifted enrollment program, with two months left on his term.
Siegel-Hawley said she isn’t sure abolishing gifted programs altogether is the answer, but that wholesale change is needed.
“I have serious questions about whether or not they should continue to exist if the persistent racial inequities in access continue,” she said. “I think that’s absolutely fair game to call them into question."
The governing board of Maggie L. Walker is slated to consider a revamp of their admissions policies later this month.
READ PART ONE OF THE SERIES
READ PART TWO OF THE SERIES
In 2010, Tiyanna Stewart was the only Black student from Chesterfield County Public Schools selected to attend the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, a common tale for many Black students entering the school.