A debate that has been percolating for years in Loudoun County reached a boiling point during tonight’s School Board meeting.
The board is weighing whether to continue bussing some of the county’s brightest students to neighboring Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
This year alone, the school system is spending $4.3 million to send 269 students to the prestigious governor’s school. That equates to $17,435 per student, and includes tuition and transportation costs, plus an additional $2,074 per student to help cover TJ’s $76 million renovation.
As school and county leaders have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and years of planning into the new Academies of Loudoun to provide more seats for students interested in rigorous magnet programs, many expected the school system to cut ties with TJ. The Academies of Loudoun, set to open off Sycolin Road in August, will house three of Loudoun’s existing magnet programs: the Academy of Science, the Academy of Engineering and Technology, and the C.S. Monroe Technology Center.
The School Board must decide by June 1 whether to extend the contract with Fairfax County Public Schools to pay for another class of Loudoun freshmen to attend TJ during the 2019-2020 school year. Board members have made clear that they support allowing the current TJ students and students who will enroll as freshmen this fall to finish out their high school careers at the governor’s school.
Fifteen speakers took turns at the microphone tonight to urge board members to continue to give Loudoun students an opportunity to attend one of the best schools in the country.
Michael Powers called TJ “the crown jewel of Northern Virginia.” He said his two children applied to both TJ and AOS; his son was accepted to AOS and not TJ while his daughter was accepted to TJ but not AOS.
“Why not give kids two rolls of the dice,” he asked.
“When I hear about TJ funding being stopped, it tells me that we’re taking away available choice from our students,” said Uday Kumar, also a parent. “Choices are good for consumers. Choices are good for markets. Choice are good for our students’ education.”
Judging by board members’ comments from the dais tonight, a narrow majority agreed with them.
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said there are too few services for Loudoun’s gifted students. “It breaks my heart to think there could be students gifted enough to get into TJ who won’t have that opportunity. … There’s too much at stake here.”
“I think one day our Academies will rival TJ, but I don’t think it’s there yet,” Beth Huck (At Large) said.
“The reality is that the Academies of Loudoun is a concept, a concept that has not yet been proven,” Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) added.
Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said one of the reasons she ran for School Board was to offer more options for high school students, and TJ happens to be one of the best educational options in the nation.
“These kids are getting on what is a longer and longer bus ride every year, and we still have kids that want to do this. When we don’t, that’s when we can say we’re against school choice,” she said. “But until then we’re for school choice.”
The four board members opposed to extending the contract spoke just as passionately.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian) scolded her colleagues for describing the Academies of Loudoun as a program that could one day rival TJ. “We’re never going to have a school that compares to TJ because we’re not building a TJ. We are building a different program, and that’s by design,” she said.
TJ is a comprehensive high school that students attend full time. All of the Academies of Loudoun’s programs, including the rigorous Academy of Science, are offered on an every-other-day schedule so students can stay connected with their home high schools.
A few board members pointed to the fact that fewer Loudoun students are accepting offers to attend TJ as proof that they are finding good educational options locally. Of the 82 rising freshman offered a seat at TJ next school year, only 53 accepted.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said Loudoun should be proud of its well-respected, well-established programs, like the Academy of Science and Monroe Tech.
“Why is TJ top rated? Well, in part because the top students in all of the region’s school districts are attending one school,” Turgeon said. “I’d like to keep those top students here.”
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said the board needs to decide whether to “invest in a few or in the many.” He noted that the half a million dollars the board spent on transportation for TJ students this year could have been used to fund the five additional Academies of Loudoun support staff positions that were ultimately cut from the budget because of a lack in funding. Those positions would have served 1,000 students, as opposed to the 269 who attend TJ, Hornberger added.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said TJ is only a governor’s school in name, but that the Fairfax County School Board is the sole operator. He described the tuition and the annual contract as a “take it or leave it” offer from Fairfax each year.
“I’ll leave it,” he said.
The School Board is scheduled to vote on whether to extend its contract with TJ at its next meeting, May 22.