Values in Conflict: The Furor over Admissions Policy at a Popular Virginia Magnet School
In this executive leadership case, the activist superintendent of Virginia's affluent Fairfax County public school district, Daniel A. Domenech, is faced with a complex, politically-loaded policy dilemma. At issue is admissions policy for the county's popular and prestigious magnet high school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ). TJ is so highly sought-after that only one in six applicants is accepted. The case is set in 2001. In the past 16 years, the admissions policy at TJ has made a pendulum swing: heavy reliance on a single standardized exam in 1985; the addition of an affirmative action program in 1990; the elimination of that program in 1998, in the face of political pressure and anxiety over a "reverse discrimination" law suit. As the case opens, TJ is fast losing diversity. The liberal-leaning School Board has instructed Domenech to come up with a way to restore that diversity, but without sacrificing the school's strong academic reputation or making the school system legally vulnerable. After painstaking effort, Domenech and his administrative team have come up with a plan that aims at geographic diversity within the county, rather than racial and ethnic diversity per se. But, faced with an angry reaction from parents from the "overrepresented" neighborhoods, the Board has quickly backed away from the plan. That leaves Domenech back at square one, trying to find a solution that will broaden the range of students at Jefferson in a way that is fair, effective, and legally safe-but also politically palatable.