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Fairfax County Fairness?
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Fairfax County Fairness?

Virginia’s attorney general says in a Dispatch interview he's investigating high schools that withheld National Merit award information from students.

A student sits in a math class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Virginia’s attorney general is investigating whether three Fairfax County schools violated the state’s Human Rights Act by failing to notify students who received letters of commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation—an incident that could resonate with students and parents across the country.

“It looks like it could be a case study in equity politics run amok, and in that sense is a cautionary tale,” said Nat Malkus, an education policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Attorney General Jason Miyares’ investigation will focus on the three schools’ National Merit notifications while also scrutinizing the admissions policy of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), which is ranked the best in the country and is already at the center of national controversy over alleged race-based admissions.

“If it was wrong 100 years ago to cap or limit the educational opportunities of Jewish American students, it is equally wrong to do that to our Asian American students,” Miyares told The Dispatch. At the national level, “it seems like the only state-sanctioned form of bigotry is anti-Asian bigotry, particularly in higher ed,” he said, adding that “the purpose of this investigation is to see if what we’re seeing nationally is actually happening here in Virginia at our high school levels and at Thomas Jefferson.”

Admissions

The admissions branch of the investigation is fairly straightforward. On the heels of the national debates about race in 2020, the Fairfax County School Board voted 10-1 to change TJ’s admissions policies, with the goal to “improve equitable access,” particularly for underrepresented black and Hispanic students.

While the school board says the new protocol is race-neutral, a coalition of parents claimed in a federal lawsuit that it discriminates against Asian Americans. (Asian American students typically make up more than 70 percent of the school’s population but received only 60 percent of admissions offers last year.)

In an emergency relief case last year, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the policy change to stand while the lawsuit returned to lower courts. Miyares—who filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the coalition of parents—is investigating whether the policy violates state anti-discrimination law.

Controversy Over Commendation

With the admissions controversy already pointing a spotlight on TJ, the school’s failure to notify students of National Merit commendations convinced Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to call for Miyares’ investigation. When two other Fairfax County high schools apologized for the same thing, Miyares widened the scope of the National Merit part of the investigation to include them as well. He wants to find out whether the schools’ behavior was racially motivated, which could be a violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.

Students commended by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation represent an elite subset of the approximately 1.5 million high school juniors who take the PSAT each October. The top 3 percent of test-takers (about 50,000 students) receive one of two designations by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation the following September: 16,000 become semifinalists who compete for $2,500 National Merit scholarships, and 34,000 receive letters of commendation.

Receiving the commendation letters often helps in the application processes for college admissions and other scholarships. Liberty University offers full-tuition scholarships to commended students, Miyares pointed out.

“This is not one of those participation trophy things,” Malkus said. “This is a difficult thing to achieve, and the students that make this designation really have done something worthy of attention.”

Failing to let students know about their commendation letters until after important application deadlines had passed would be a particularly glaring error at the best high school in the country. But that’s what school officials acknowledge happened at TJ.

“Our current understanding is that the delay at Thomas Jefferson High School this fall was a unique situation due to human error, but we will continue to examine our records in further detail,” Fairfax County Public Schools said in a December 30 statement

Miyares and the school’s critics aren’t taking that explanation at face value.

Asra Nomani, a writer and activist who co-founded the coalition of parents who sued over the admissions policy change, alleged in an article article for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal that administrators at the school have been withholding letters of commendation for at least five years as part of what she described as a broader “war on merit.”

According to Nomani, another TJ parent, Shawna Yashar, spoke to a school official on the phone who said he didn’t want to “hurt” the feelings of students who didn’t get the award—an anecdote Miyares referred to twice in an interview with The Dispatch.

A lot of questions remain unanswered. But regardless of whether the schools’ behavior was unlawful, students’ and parents’ irritation isn’t unfounded.

“It certainly looks like they fell down on one thing that you would expect public schools to be focused on, and that’s recognizing excellence in the students that they teach,” Malkus said. “When you see three of these instances, and this is not something that is a small achievement, and it’s not something that schools are in the habit of disregarding—especially some of these schools like Thomas Jefferson, which has a historic pattern of producing a bunch of high achievers—it raises serious questions.”

On Tuesday, three Loudoun County schools said that they, too, had failed to notify students, but Miyares said he doesn’t have plans to investigate those schools—yet.

“Any review that comes to the Office of Civil Rights we take quite seriously, and we review what the complaint is,” he said. “And we’ll take the appropriate actions at the appropriate time.”

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.