FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. – After a crusade by educational arsonists targeting the nation’s No. 1 high school, America’s meritocracy is about to go up in flames.
The Fairfax County School Board is set to vote Thursday night to gut the race-blind, merit-based admissions testing process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. T.J. is a state-chartered magnet school legislated to serve academically gifted and advanced students. The school board plans to replace the testing with a lottery or subjective selection process akin to a popularity contest.
The results of Freedom of Information Act inquiries reveal the attack on the school was months in the making. The campaign included one of the people most entrusted to protect the school, its students, and its families: the principal, working in sync with public school officials and radical alumni activists. The school principal and district officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The ‘Diversity Report’
This spring, life at Thomas Jefferson was as ordinary as it was for other schools affected by COVID-19 lockdowns. On May 21, school principal Ann Bonitatibus forwarded the school’s admissions director, Jeremy Shughart, a “Diversity Report” they had to return to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam by Oct. 1, spelling out racial goals for the school’s student body and staff. The instructions were explicit: The form is “rather simple” to fill out and “doesn’t have a requirement to be approved by your Board.”
Months later, after lurching the community through chaotic, secretive online deliberations, the school board is poised to overhaul admissions to the school. Last week, school board member Megan McLaughlin broke ranks from the board, of which all members are backed by Democrats, and scolded Superintendent Scott Brabrand for using the “Diversity Report” to mislead the board and “pretty much dismantle” admissions to the school.
“I feel like you put this on us,” she said, noting, “I don’t think it’s responsible.”
Indeed, the Jefferson fiasco underscores how activist school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, staff, and alumni from California to Massachusetts are conspiring to irresponsibly and recklessly overhaul school policies, education standards, and curriculum this year. For example, they’re canceling grades in San Diego, replacing merit-based admissions with lotteries in San Francisco’s Lowell High School and the Boston Latin School, and renaming schools in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Falls Church, Virginia; and Washington, D.C.
Capitalizing on a Crisis
At a recent town hall, Brabrand was blunt about why he turned a “simple” diversity report into radical change: The May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man killed in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer four days after the principal’s email to the admissions director, motivated his “heart and soul” to “bring forward a change” in the “midst of a social justice movement in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.”
For us authors — both immigrant, brown mothers of Jefferson students, one of us from India, the other from Peru — the irony is that while activists claim “equity” drives their radical policy changes, they are shepherding America’s schools through one of the most devasting periods of inequity for minority children, particularly for black and Hispanic students facing catastrophic learning gaps.
In Fairfax County, the percentage of middle-school students failing has increased by 300 percent this year compared to last year, with Hispanic middle-schoolers and middle-schoolers with disabilities failing at an increased rate of 400 percent and economically disadvantaged students failing at an increased rate of 375 percent.
That hasn’t been a priority for activists, however, according to 826 pages of emails released in a Freedom of Information Act request. Instead, activists exploited Floyd’s killing to launch their “equity” crusade against Jefferson, its students, and its families.
The school is majority-minority, with 73 percent of its students Asian, 17.7 percent white, and 9.3 percent black, Hispanic, and multiracial. When the new class of 2024 admissions numbers were announced on June 1, one week after Floyd’s death, the activists pounced.
That day, the superintendent issued a letter saying “racism and hate” had no place in schools. That Friday, June 5, Jefferson computer science teacher Malcolm Eckel wrote that he wanted “anti-racism” education at the school or he was “no longer willing to continue working at TJ.”
In response to a query, Eckel said yesterday, “I have greatly enjoyed teaching every student I’ve ever had at TJ. I think they all belong here.” He continued, however, “Looking INSIDE the building, though, certain ethnic groups are wildly underrepresented, at every level.”
Two days later, on June 7, Jefferson’s principal, who is white, issued a “call to action” and asked our mostly minority parents and students to check our “privileges.” The next day, she organized a “fishbowl” chat with students, including a student who would become a leader in an alumni lobbying group that spammed the principal with an AstroTurf campaign of emails the principal even called a “form letter.” In the “form letter,” the alumni activists demanded “anti-racism curriculum” at Jefferson and disparaged students who “are not made to substantially engage with their privilege even in a cursory way.”
Northam’s education secretary, Atif Qarni, convened a secretive task force that wasn’t publicly disclosed, with the activist principal, superintendent, and a student joining activist school board member Karen Keys-Gamarra and other handpicked ideologues on the panel.
The principal lamented in an email on June 12 that there were “so few black and brown children” at the school. Then on June 18, with a note that he might be “dating” himself with a 15th-century metaphor, Jefferson social studies teacher Jay Wickliff wrote an email to the principal, with the subject line “The Iron is hot!” He attached a blueprint: “TJ Diversity Initiative.”
Less than an hour later, the principal responded enthusiastically: “Here! Here! The hot iron metaphor still works.”
Over the summer, officials at the Thomas Jefferson Partnership Fund quietly organized huddles to support this new crusade, including with a high-powered Jefferson alumni father and board member, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of innovation policy and communications. Meanwhile, the principal agreed to choices by the admissions director for new students, in part because it would “increase diversity.”
Over the next months, Brabrand used the “Diversity Report” as the excuse to dismantle Jefferson admissions, and the “TJ test” became the foil for years of failure by the superintendent, the school board, and faculty to provide high-quality education to black and Hispanic students.
Meanwhile, school leaders and activists made the majority-Asian students at Jefferson out to be problematic. That student demographic became the scapegoats, called “toxic,” “racist,” and test-prepped in “pay-to-play” schemes by the activists, school board members, and even the school superintendent. The education secretary even once compared test preparation to illegal “performance-enhancement drugs.”
By July, according to the results from FOIA findings, the Jefferson principal, superintendent, school board member, and student were knee-deep in task-force meetings that were exploring eliminating the school’s merit-based test. On the late afternoon of August 7, a Virginia Department of Education official on the task force, Michael Bolling, sent an email to the Jefferson principal, Bonitatibus, saying he wanted to “applaud your commitment to increasing the diversity at TJHSST and openness to considering adjustments to testing and potentially a lottery.”
Meanwhile, the first parents and students learned about the plan was mid-September, when the superintendent announced it, to the shock of the community.
Despite a groundswell of opposition from parents, students, community members, and business leaders, Northam didn’t respond to desperate emails that he intervene. The educational arsonists succeeded in adding their overhaul to Jefferson admissions to the “Diversity Report” submitted in October, while “The Iron is hot!” The only people getting burned are the students of northern Virginia.