Gov. Youngkin backs student merit notification bill for Virginia schools

(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is backing a legislative proposal requiring schools to promptly inform students and parents of awards, including from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation – a practice several Virginia school systems told The Center Square they already follow.

Youngkin’s proposed legislation, which he asked two Republican lawmakers to sponsor on his behalf, comes in response to how several Northern Virginia schools, including in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, went about notifying students of National Merit recognition.

The legislation backed by Youngkin would prohibit school boards and administrators from withholding information related to any “recognition, award, or postsecondary scholarship eligibility earned by the student,” including National Merit awards. If passed into law, the bill would require information regarding awards to be transmitted to the student and the student’s parents “as soon as practicable” after the school is notified of the award.

“We will not allow our students and their parents to be left uninformed of their hard-earned recognition in what we now know was widespread across more than a dozen schools in multiple school divisions,” Youngkin said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jason Miyares launched an investigation into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. The school has acknowledged delaying notification of National Merit recognition.

Miyares has since expanded the investigation to the entire Fairfax County Public Schools system following reports of other schools in the county delaying award notification.

Outside of Fairfax County, schools in Loudoun County and Prince William County also reportedly delayed alerting students of National Merit recognition. The attorney general’s spokeswoman, Victoria LaCivita, told The Center Square this week that Miyares is “looking at every complaint and allegation regarding potential violations of the Virginia Human Rights Act at Northern Virginia high schools.”

The delayed notification prompted complaints from parents and advocates, who say the Northern Virginia schools prioritized equity over student achievement by withholding notification of the awards. Youngkin has echoed this sentiment, saying the Northern Virginia schools “withheld notification of accolades from high-performing students in the name of ‘equity.’”

“Parents are rightfully upset and they should be,” Youngkin said.

Existing policy

Several schools across the state told The Center Square it is already a regular practice to alert students of National Merit recognition promptly after receiving the award.

The Center Square reached out to 118 superintendents across the state and received responses from 23. Each of the respondents said it is typical for school administrators to immediately alert any winners of National Merit commendations of their achievement. Several said it is typical to inform both students and parents of the achievement.

“Since such notifications often come to the school before a student hears the news directly from College Board, it is the practice of our school counselors to pull the student in and share the exciting news right away. It is not our practice to delay notification,” Roanoke County Public Schools Superintendent Ken Nicely said in an email. “Often a student will want to include such awards on college applications and resumes.”

A handful of school divisions, including Nelson County Public Schools, Floyd County Public Schools, Pittsylvania County Public Schools and Goochland County Public Schools, said it is their practice to alert students right away of National Merit recognition and recognize them at a school board meeting.

“When schools are notified of these awards, they notify students promptly,” Pittsylvania Public Schools Division Superintendent Mark Jones wrote in an email. “If the central office receives this information, it is shared with the principal of the school who then passes it on to the student immediately.”

Jones added that all of the students who received National Merit commendations were recognized at the school division’s September 2022 school board meeting.

More than half a dozen schools who replied to The Center Square’s email said it is common for students recognized for National Merit achievement to be honored at school awards ceremonies and assemblies as well, while others said they will announce the student’s achievement through a press release or social media posting.

One school district, Clarke County Public Schools, said the school system received a formal notification from the College Board in September that no National Merit students were recognized as a result of the October 2021 test administration. However, over winter break, a Clarke County High School principal received word that the school system did have one student recognized for a National Merit award, according to division Superintendent Scott Bishop.

“That student was notified immediately upon return from the holidays,” Bishop told The Center Square in an email. “This notification was received well after we were formally notified by College Board that none of our students were recognized as semifinalists or finalists.”

Bishop added it is typical for the school district to notify parents and students immediately upon notification of National Merit recognition and said students are honored at scheduled awards programs. Bishop said given that the school system was notified that no students in the school system were recognized, “we were surprised to learn a few months later that we did, in fact, have a student that earned the commendation.”

“Our Guidance Department has worked diligently with the student to make sure that colleges and universities are aware of her recognition,” Bishop said.

Other administrators noted flaws in the College Board’s notification system for National Merit recognition. Oskar Scheikl, superintendent of Rockingham Public Schools, said in an email schools receive a booklet from College Board containing the names of National Merit recipients, adding he believes College Board’s “process of notifying schools rather than students and families directly is not very helpful.”

“I am not aware of any other academic award that would be sent to the school without the organization also directly notifying the award recipient,” Scheikl said. “The process used by the College Board seems fraught with the potential for miscommunication.”

As of Friday, Youngkin’s proposed legislation being carried by lawmakers in the House and Senate had not yet been heard in committee. Each bill has been referred to the Committee on Education and Health in its respective chamber.