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Senators kill legislation aimed at increasing diversity within Virginia’s elite public high schools

Maggie Walker Governor's School in Richmond.
Maggie Walker Governor's School in Richmond.(NBC12)
Published: Feb. 18, 2021 at 12:42 PM EST
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A Senate committee voted Thursday to kill legislation aimed at expanding diversity in Virginia’s governor’s schools — a hot-button issue that’s sown debate at some of the state’s elite public institutions.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, made the motion to table the bill indefinitely over strong objections from Black and minority lawmakers including Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth — the chamber’s president pro tempore and the first woman and African American to hold that role.

Several other Democrats, including Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, joined Republicans in voting against the bill after a heated committee argument along the same lines of debate that have unfolded elsewhere in the state.

Virginia has 20 full-year governor’s schools designed to serve “gifted” high school students from surrounding localities. The publicly funded institutions generally admit students through a test-based admissions process designed to identify high-achieving students.

But students and families at multiple governor’s schools across Virginia have recently complained about the lack of diversity among students. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that only about seven percent of students enrolled in the city’s Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School are Black. “Statewide, 1 in 5 public school students is Black but only 1 in 10 children enrolled in a gifted and talented program was Black during the latest school year for which state numbers are available,” the newspaper reported.

At the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria — a governor’s school with a nationally prestigious reputation  — 73 percent of incoming freshmen are of “Asian heritage” and a little more than 17 percent are White, according to The Washington Post. Only 16 students, or roughly three percent, are Hispanic, and there are fewer than 10 Black students (the school refused to disclose the exact figure). Citing data from Fairfax County, Inside NOVA reported that White students represented 23 percent of applicants and 18 percent of those accepted; Latino students were eight percent of applicants and three percent of those accepted, and Black students represented just six percent of those who applied.

“If our demographics actually represented [Fairfax County Public Schools], we would enroll 180 Black and 460 Hispanic students, filling nearly 22 classrooms,” Thomas Jefferson Principal Ann Bonitatibus wrote in a June letter to students and families.

Students and families advocating for greater diversity say the problem stems from educational inequities that often start in elementary school or earlier, coupled with admissions tests that favor students with greater family support and access to extra educational resources.

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