VA Gov. Ralph Northam: Keep Merit-Based Admissions at TJHSST

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Dear Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni, Virginia State Legislators, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Principal Ann Bonitatibus, FCPS School Board Members Laura Jane Cohen, Tamara Derenak Kaufax, Karen Keys-Gamarra, Abrar Omeish, Megan McLaughlin, Melanie Meren, Elaine Tholen, Ricardy Anderson, Karen Corbett Sanders, Karl Frisch, Stella Pekarsky, Rachna Sizemore Heizer, the Members of the Task Force on Governor’s Schools  and other policy makers: 

We are concerned citizens. Many of us are parents, students and alumni of Fairfax County Public Schools and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a Governor’s School in Alexandria, Va.

We are members of the Coalition for TJ, advocating for diversity and excellence at TJ. We are extremely concerned about a secretive and bigoted, anti-Asian, anti-immigrant effort by Gov. Northam, his cabinet and Virginia state education officials to undermine the admissions criteria, curriculum and future of TJ.

We are quite concerned about the existence of a Governor’s task force, quietly created in July 2020 by Gov. Northam and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, to recommend to the Virginia State Legislature changes to TJ and its admissions process, potentially replacing TJ’s race-blind admissions process with race-based options including a lottery, quotas and an admissions adversity scoring bump to students from underrepresented minorities. This task force has been meeting without public information about its meetings.

It is inappropriate to use TJ as a Petri dish for experiments in social engineering, and suggestions made by at least one of the members of Mr. Qarni’s task force about potentially eliminating Governor’s Schools such as TJ are downright reckless. We seek to increase the numbers of Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students who gain admission to TJ, but we seek solutions that get at the underlying reasons for this phenomena rather than imposing shortsighted race-based solutions.

Policy makers must consider four key points: 

1) First, TJ is not only an excellent school with a long tradition of providing a world class education for academically advanced students in STEM, but it is also a magnet for businesses, families and investment in Fairfax County, Virginia.

US News and World Report ranked TJ the No. 1 high school in America, and it is a major reason that northern Virginia schools--and Fairfax County schools in particular--are regarded so highly by publications and by businesses, many of which point to the school system as a reason to locate in northern Virginia. 

What better recommendation for a school district than to have the No. 1 high school in America? Given the importance of TJ to the region and state, we should not undermine the school. Do the Commonwealth of Virginia and northern Virginia now value virtue signaling more than academic excellence and a business-friendly climate?  

2) Second, these changes will have a disproportionate impact on Asians and immigrants, who make up approximately 70 percent of the TJ student body.

There can be no claims of this TJ overhaul battling “white privilege.” There is simply no equitable or moral basis for this task force admitting certain students based on race and forcing out immigrants and other people of color who have gained admission to TJ based on merit.  

There is a name for these policy considerations. It is called RACISM, and racial discrimination and “race leveling,” which these efforts are clearly promoting, are unconstitutional. It is particularly galling to the Asian and immigrant members of this group that policy makers making decisions about the future of TJ are powerful and privileged US citizens, many of them white.

In short: we are outraged.

Many TJ families left racial prejudice, political repression, religious discrimination or limited economic opportunities in nations from Romania to India and China to find opportunity in the U.S. We are extremely disappointed to see discrimination and a plantation mentality coming from our adopted home country. 

Many TJ families have suffered from oppression, racism, colonization, violence and poverty, with intergenerational trauma a reality. It is racist, bigoted and unfair for TJ’s mostly Asian immigrant families of color and their students to be harassed and accused of “privilege,” when they have simply been pursuing the universal value of education as a way to advance and then give back to society with service. 

3) Third, these changes threaten to undermine the reputation and academic integrity of TJ by severing TJ’s admissions from admissions based purely on academic merit.

We have heard speeches by members of the Governor’s task force that too many TJ students and families employ test preparatory services to gain admission to TJ and that Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students may not be able to afford such testing. The solution to this problem (to the extent it is a problem) is simple. The Commonwealth or the counties in northern Virginia should provide discounted or free test preparatory services on a needs basis to local residents. Such practice taking tests will have benefits far beyond merely gaining admission to TJ.

Moreover, you are doing a disservice to Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students by moving the goalpost of TJ admissions to allow them to gain admission. Admitting students who have not been able to gain admission through legitimate means will not make TJ any less academically rigorous, and we anticipate that many of these students will struggle academically or lead the school to revamp its curriculum to make it less academically advanced. A far better course of action is to improve the pipeline to TJ through the county’s Advanced Academics Program, the Young Scholars Program, nurturing students from underrepresented communities, and other initiatives to support these students. 

High school academic excellence is attainable by all ethnicities and cultures if properly prepared at the lower grades, where changes are desperately needed. Preparing students earlier in the process by making the Advanced Academic Program accessible to more students and expanding the Young Scholars program, while maintaining academic rigor and high standards, will best prepare children of all communities for the future. That should be our collective goal.

4) Finally, we question the legitimacy and lack of transparency of this task force.

Secret task forces meeting in private under the guise of being “informal” smacks of back room political dealing and is grossly undemocratic. There should be transparency and much greater opportunity for public comment in this entire process that so importantly affects so many families in northern Virginia. 

We urge you to take this letter to heart and let it serve as a warning. We will not go quietly. Your efforts to shame us will not work. We will continue to expose your efforts for what they are: bigoted, anti-Asian and anti-immigrant. We speak out unapologetically for diversity and excellence at TJ.

Please contact us so we can assist you in finding solutions. We are reachable at coalition4TJ@gmail.com.