The Virginia Board of Education has the power to approve textbooks, shepherds the state’s standards of accreditation, and more.
It’s summer. School isn’t in session. The classroom desks are empty. Students aren’t in the halls. And Gov. Glenn Youngkin is…appointing an individual to the Virginia Board of Education who opposes the admissions eligibility requirements at a prestigious Virginia school?
The five appointees Youngkin announced on June 30 didn’t come out of the blue. There were three vacancies and two Board member seats with terms that expired that same day — Dr. Francisco Durán, superintendent of Arlington County Public Schools, and Dr. Keisha Anderson, director of learning and development innovation for Newport News Shipbuilding.
All five of the new appointees will serve four-year terms. These changes often occur with switches in governorship, but the state leader may choose to reappoint members serving up to two consecutive full terms. Both Durán and Anderson were appointed in 2018 by former Gov. Ralph Northam.
A Dutta Deep Dive
Out of the five appointees, one in particular is causing a big stir. That’s Suparna Dutta, the co-founder of the Coalition for TJ, with “TJ” standing for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a group that opposes changes to the school’s admissions policy.
Following the release of 2020 data showing that 10 or fewer Black students had been admitted to the Alexandria-based school’s Class of 2024, the top-ranked public high school in the nation started working on a new admissions policy.
In a March 2021 opinion piece published by USA Today contributor Asra Nomani, whose teenage son attended TJ, noted that the school replaced a rigorous entrance exam with “a new process that includes completing an essay and a ‘Student Portrait Sheet’ that reveals ‘experience factors’ like language spoken at home and family wealth.”
Nomani expressed concern that the new race-neutral methods would allow the school to pick and choose its students.
An online post from Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group who represents the Coalition for TJ free of charge, noted that the admissions policy capped the number of students allowed from the district’s 23 middle schools.
“The three middle schools that typically account for most of TJ’s admissions have higher numbers of Asian-American students than most other middle schools,” the post read in part. “As a result, TJ’s Class of 2025 is projected to have 42% fewer Asian-American students, while no other racial group will lose seats.”
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) released a report, noting that for the first time in 10 years, every middle school in the division had students who were offered admission to TJ.
According to Nomani on her website Asra Investigates, research conducted by TJ parent Himanshu Verma found that the new admissions policy would most benefit white students. However, The New York Times reported that students admitted from the cross-section of schools contained a higher representation of poorer students, as well as students learning the English language, compared to prior to the change. FCPS also noted that the new admissions process is still merit-based and is race-blind. Students receive an identification number and admissions evaluators do not know the race, ethnicity, or gender of any applicant.
Even the legal system seemingly struggled to find common ground on the policy. Federal Judge Claude Hilton ruled that Fairfax County Public Schools violated the law by changing TJ’s admissions requirements “to deliberately reduce the number of Asian American students enrolled,” the Fairfax County Times reported in March.
However, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in April that the new policy could remain in place.
Dutta, who said that TJ’s new admissions standards were based on ‘luck,’ rather than merit in 2020, appeared in an October 2021 campaign video supporting Glenn Youngkin’s run for governor. In the 25-second clip, she said: “I’m supporting Glenn Youngkin because he stands with parents, students, and educators in opposing all the big interests that have taken over education in Virginia.”
In a statement about the appointees, Youngkin named Dutta as one of the “proven leaders” he appointed to ensure students received a “best-in-class education.”
Five New Members
While Dutta’s appointment received media attention over the weekend from Virginia Mercury, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and other local Virginia sources, Youngkin also appointed four other members to the Board of Education.
There are two names that Virginians may recognize from serving in education leadership positions in the past: Bill Hansen, former deputy secretary of education from 2001 to 2003 under former President George W. Bush, and Andrew Rotherham, a former Board of Education member from 2005 to 2009.
Youngkin also appointed Alan Seibert, a former Salem City Schools superintendent, as well as Grace Turner Creasey, executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education, which oversees the accreditation of private preschool, elementary, and secondary schools.
“I have tasked these innovators to bring their expertise as parents, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers to ensure our classrooms and our campuses prepare students for success in life,” Youngkin said in a statement announcing the appointees. “This includes providing equal access to educational opportunities regardless of background or zip code, protecting and promoting free speech, restoring the ability to have civil discourse, keeping tuition affordable, and ensuring that all Virginians have access to in-demand career pathways. Together, we will make Virginia the best place to learn across a lifetime.”
If approved, Youngkin’s appointees would grant him the majority of the seats on the Board of Education, which has the power to approve textbooks, shepherds the state’s standards of accreditation, and more.
Youngkin also announced the appointees for the State Council for Higher Education and College Board of Visitors, available here.