Long-implemented in college and university admissions offices, John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia announced diversity quotas for Honors and Advanced Placement classes in a mailer sent out to parents.
While federal education standards have largely become one-size-fits-all, many schools have crafted higher-level classes for students who excel in certain subjects. Honors classes exist to challenge gifted students, and schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes so that they can earn college credits while they're still in high school.
AP classes are -- rightly -- treated as commodities. College credits are expensive, and any opportunity for students to gain credits while in high school is literally free money.
Because Honors and AP classes move at a faster pace and higher level, students have always needed to meet academic benchmarks before being allowed to take the classes. That may be about to change in one Virginia high school.
John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, announced in a "back to school mailer" sent to parents that it will begin implementing race and ethnicity quotas for future Honors and Advanced Placement classes. Instead of focusing exclusively on academic readiness, diversity will play a part in the enrollment process.
Through our collective work, advanced classes such as AP and Honors will have proportional representation,” the announcement read. “Proportional representation is 40% White, 35% Hispanic, 12% African American, 10% mixed race... American demographic trends indicate that America will be a majority minority nation in the next 25 years. Therefore, the new work of American public schools is to develop systems to address disparate outcomes.”
School administrators looked at the enrollment demographics in these upper level courses and decided that action was necessary to ensure that classes were diverse.
Parents who received the letter were stunned. Eric Sitton, a father of a rising-sophomore at John Handley High School, doesn't know how to explain the new policy to his child.
“I felt powerless to help my child,” he said. “Seeing the look on his face when he realized that he was being judged by the color of his skin was agonizing.”
Sitton explained that his son asked him, "Am I not going to be able to be in an AP class because I’m white?"
This is the rub. In the pursuit of diversity, the school seems to be pursuing a policy of "equality of outcomes." The school administrators want Honors and AP classes to be more diverse. But in doing that, they may have created a system that creates unequal opportunity. Eric Sitton's son's question sums up much of the outrage over this new policy.
If the school was turning away qualified minority students because there are already too many black or Hispanic students in the class, would that pass constitutional muster? Public schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity. Capping class enrollment for each ethnicity, and favoring one student over another because of his or her race and ethnicity, is clearly unconstitutional.
The topic of affirmative action has been in the news after memos leaked showing that the Trump administration was preparing to tackle the issue of discrimination in college and university admissions. Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that the inquiry was into how Asian applicants were treated. In 2009, a Princeton University study
revealed that Asian-American college applicants needed to score much higher than their white, Hispanic, and African American classmates in order to get into leading colleges and universities. In order to have the same chance of admissions, the study found that Asian-Americans had to score 140 points higher on their SATs than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than African Americans
The study revealed the consequences of affirmative action quotas and setting different standards for students depending on their race and ethnicity. John Handley High School promises that the new race quotas for AP and Honors classes will not lead to discrimination.
“I disagree that those statements mean that students will be placed in classes based on race,” school board chairperson Erica Truban said in a statement.
After the story broke, the school district released a statement attempting to walk back the proposed race and ethnicity quotas for advanced high school classes. They confirmed that the quota language was part of a back-to-school mailing but denied the policy would be discriminatory:
“Our school division does not have, nor has it ever had, any policy that utilizes race for enrollment into honors or AP courses. All students, regardless of race, must meet academic criteria to enroll in advanced level coursework. Over the past years, the School Board has continued its focus on providing advanced level coursework as well as increasing advanced course offerings across a variety of disciplines. The School Board has not contemplated, nor adopted, any policy or practice that utilizes race in determining which students can or cannot take such courses, or any other courses for that matter.
We have not received any inquiries from parents regarding the letter that was referenced by the parent. The portion of the letter you cited was from an insert in a back to school mailing from John Handley High School that highlighted division and school level work slated for 2017-2018. This work includes increased efforts to identify students who meet academic criteria and encourage them to enroll in advanced level coursework, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and disability.
Our School Board prides itself on being available and responsive to community members; that is our role as a School Board. Had I received an inquiry from this parent or any other concerned parent, I would have provided the facts related to the letter to the concerned parent and child. We believe that students must have access to advanced coursework opportunities and we will continue to make them available to all students should they meet the academic criteria required. Our vision is that all students that have met those requirements are encouraged to take these courses, and to that end, we hope to see an increase in overall enrollment in advanced coursework.”