RICHMOND, Virginia – In a bipartisan 26-13 vote, the Senate passed a stripped-down version of a House of Delegates bill to require race-blind admissions procedures in Virginia’s Governor’s schools; that version will have to go back to the House for approval.

State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) advocated for HB 127 on the Senate floor on Tuesday; he noted that about 90 percent of the House bill had been removed.

“We really are only left with two paragraphs,” Petersen said. “Everything else frankly we did away with. And the two paragraphs, one has to do with no discrimination based on race or ethnicity, which is the current Title IX standard, and the second would just simply say that all school divisions should make sure that each middle school has a program in place to prepare children to apply for Governor’s schools.”

The House version had several paragraphs banning discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin, and included a ban on “proxy discrimination,” defined as “the use of a facially neutral factor in student admissions that correlates with race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin for the purpose of discriminating against or granting a preference to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”

The bill that passed the House was a reaction to controversy at Thomas Jefferson (TJ) High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, where officials instituted a merit lottery to try to expand the largely Asian American student base to underrepresented groups while still maintaining a high standard. Conservatives saw that as part of a broader wave of watered-down academic standards in the name of equity, and Republicans campaigned in 2021 on restoring Virginia’s educational standards of excellence.

At the end of February, a judge ruled that practices at TJ discriminated against Asian students. In debate Tuesday, State Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) cast doubt on that ruling.

“The admissions program that was ultimately proposed was because the school as it was playing out wasn’t really representing the entire county,” Surovell said. “I want to say about 30 percent of the admissions at that school came from two middle schools.”

“I read the opinion by the judge, and I believe the judge cherry-picked a couple of emails to support the conclusion they were trying to reach. There was a lot of other emails in there, a lot of other disputed facts that weren’t discussed. I’m sure the Fourth Circuit, probably the U.S. Supreme Court’s, going to have something to say about this at the end of the day,” he said.

“The system that the county ended up choosing to adopt is effectively the same system at Ivy League Schools,” he said.

Several Democratic senators noted that the amended version of the bill wouldn’t accomplish that much except keep the bill alive so the House could try to change it back to the original version.

“I don’t believe this bill is doing very much. This is reiterating federal law as it’s written right now, and it’s not necessary,” Surovell said.

At the end of debate, Petersen said, “No one has talked about what this issue is really about, and that was limiting the number of Asian Americans at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Let me repeat that, it was about limiting the number of Asian Americans at Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology. Yes, I’m sorry, you can shake your heads. Look at the emails, look at the statements that were made, look at the statements of ‘We want a population that reflects our county.'”

He said, “You can have any type of neutral criteria you want, but if you’re using it to discriminate against, in this case, Asian Americans, that’s illegal under federal law, and if you pass this, it’ll be illegal under state law. Statements are important, and yes, we do have a chance to make a statement that every child should be free to be in a school system free from discrimination.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Glenn Youngkin” by Glenn Youngkin. Photo “Chap Petersen” by Chap Petersen. Background Photo “Classroom” by Wokandapix.