The new year brought new problems for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va. when Gov. Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares to launch an investigation into possible human rights violations at the Virginia high school in early January. Parents have accused the school’s administration of intentionally failing to notify over 200 students who received recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation — allegedly due to “woke” ideology among leadership. These accusations are part of a larger push by conservatives to portray our public schools as anti-achievement and anti-merit. In an unsurprising turn of events, Youngkin has used the moment to weaponize the attorney general’s office for his own political gain — painting himself as a hypocrite and further undermining the efforts of our educators.
Early this past fall, over 200 students at Thomas Jefferson High School scored high enough on their preliminary SATs to receive recognition as “commended students” in the National Merit Scholarship Competition. These students were not notified of their achievement until late last fall — weeks later than when the awards are usually announced. Since many early application deadlines for colleges had already passed, parents argued that students were denied the opportunity to boost their applications by placing the commendation on their files. In an effort to ensure the awards can be considered, the school said they have been contacting each of the colleges to which affected students applied early. Additionally, in an act of good faith and transparency, the school district has enlisted the help of a third party to independently investigate the matter.
The incident was initially brought to light when Shawna Yashar — a parent of one of the affected students — publicly claimed that the delay was intentional. She said an administrator told her they didn’t want to hurt the feelings of students who didn’t get the award. Yashar’s claim fanned the flames of a burgeoning fire. For years, conservative activists have been trying to paint the picture that Thomas Jefferson High School’s focus on equity means its leadership is actively trying to destroy the concepts of hard work and merit. Youngkin rose to prominence, in part, by capitalizing on these types of concerns. Despite the school trying to resolve the matter and Yashar’s allegations being unproven, the Youngkin administration leaped at the opportunity to paint the incident as indicative of a bonafide “war on merit.” Attorney General Miyares has even expanded his investigation to include the entire school system, following reports that award notification was also delayed at more Fairfax County high schools.
It is disingenuous for the Youngkin administration to allege an attack on merit. It is far more convenient for conservatives to blame their opponent’s “woke” ideologies than it is to recognize the systemic issues, such as flaws in funding; training and resources, that actually contribute to failures in the functioning of our schools — not only because the Governor is largely responsible for our state’s education apparatus, but also since he supports policies that divert resources away from public education. It is not even necessarily that these flaws caused the delays we are witnessing — it is just quite telling that the governor has chosen to fixate on this politically expedient problem, while simultaneously ignoring the broader issues plaguing our public schools.
I would be remiss not to mention the sheer absurdity of the Youngkin administration launching an investigation into school-based “human rights violations.” This is the same governor who — just weeks ago — was proudly announcing his plan to strip Virginia’s transgender students of their basic human dignity by restricting their rights in our public schools. This is a governor from the party of small government who is willing to waste taxpayer funds on a matter that has been largely addressed, and is already being independently investigated. All of this manufactured outrage highlights what many of us already know to be true — Youngkin and his administration pick and choose causes that are politically expedient, regardless of the human cost of their often inflammatory and irresponsible decisions.
When it is all said and done, students will survive having their merit certificates a few weeks later than normal. The same cannot easily be said, for example, of the transgender youth that will have to suffer Youngkin’s regressive policies. Instead of enabling parents who are using their kids’ misfortune to further their own political agenda, Youngkin would do well to stand up for the students whose lives he endangered with his poor policy choices in 2022. We have no evidence of a war on merit — educators can, of course, take an equity-based approach without sacrificing excellence. If there is any war at all, it is the one Gov. Youngkin is presently waging — on LGBTQ youth, on our public schools and on the progressive ideals a majority of Virginians proudly stand for.
Nathan Onibudo is the Executive Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.