UPDATE: County Schools’ Merit Awards Scandal

Mark Spooner | Fairfax Schools Monitor

On March 29, 2023, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) published the “Key Findings” of a hired law firm’s investigation into allegations that school officials had failed to inform students and parents of National Merit “commended student” awards.  The document is HERE.  

“Key Findings” concedes that students in several FCPS high schools didn’t receive timely notices of their awards, and that the students’ parents or guardians weren’t informed either.  Additionally, the document states that a lack of a clear FCPS policy regarding these awards may have been a factor.  Otherwise, however, “Key Findings” essentially exonerates all the school officials involved, dismissing failure after failure as nothing more than logistical problems, one-time oversights, and the like.

Regrettably, “Key Findings” does not simply describe the law firm’s factual findings.  It is an argumentative document prepared by FCPS staff to lay blame on everyone other than FCPS.  It suggests that fault lies with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) because it should have informed the students directly, rather than sending the awards to high school principals for distribution by them.  And it asserts that the press reports were irresponsible.  The entire matter is dismissed as an “unfortunate episode” that improperly caused FCPS to expend substantial time and money.  It states that the greatest cost has been borne by FCPS staff, who have suffered a substantial emotional toll.

The summary concludes by stating that the FCPS Superintendent has proposed a new regulation to the School Board to establish rules for dealing with National Merit awards, so that incidents won’t occur in the future.

“Key Findings” is not the actual report delivered by the law firm hired by FCPS, and it raises as many questions as it tries to answer.  Fairfax Schools Monitor has therefore submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of the actual report, the witness interviews, and other relevant materials.  This article will be supplemented by the information received in response.

Unanswered Questions

The initial media report that precipitated the controversy appeared in the City Journal on December 21, 2022.  The article is HERE.  It quoted a mother of a Thomas Jefferson High School (TJ) student who had confronted school officials about their failure to notify her or her son about his National Merit “commended student” award.  According to the article, TJ’s Director of Student Services explained the failure by saying, “We want to recognize students for who they are, not focus on their achievements,” and he was also reported as saying that he and the TJ Principal didn’t want to “hurt” the feelings of students who hadn’t earned the awards.  “Key Findings” states that the law firm found no evidence that any such statements were made.  Okay, perhaps.  The parent might have lied to the reporter, or the reporter might have mischaracterized what the parent told her.  But is this the case?  Did the law firm interview the parent?  If so, what did she say?  Did the law firm interview the reporter to find out what she had learned?  Did the TJ officials unequivocally deny to the law firm that they made the statements attributed to them?  In other words, what is the basis for the rejection of the facts reported in the media?

Another question:   What documents did the law firm request and review?  “Key Findings” says the firm reviewed a “large volume,” but none are referred to.  In contrast, the City Journal reporter reviewed  2,000 pages of emails obtained in an FOIA request and found abundant support for what had been reported in her initial article.  See The War on Merit Turns Into Systemic Injustice.  These documents seem to demonstrate quite clearly that teachers downplayed the National Merit awards and refrained from publicly recognizing the students in school for fear of hurting the feelings of others.  Did the law firm review these emails?  If so, how could it report that there was “no evidence” to support the media reports?

Another question:  “Key Findings” reports that twenty-nine “FCPS principals, administrative staff, central office leadership and parents were interviewed.  How many were parents/guardians who had expressed concern about how the awards were handled?  What did they report?  Did the law firm make a diligent effort to verify what they had to say, or did it primarily rely on self-exonerating, unverified statements of FCPS personnel?

Questions like these need to be answered.  The law firm’s findings, and the basis for them, need to be examined.  The “circle our wagons” summary prepared by FCPS staff won’t convince a skeptical public.

It’s not surprising that FCPS personnel don’t feel that the FCPS “equity” agenda played a part in what occurred.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that way to many outside observers.  Week after week, the FCPS school system is the subject of stories in the national media, including recently CNN, for “equity”-related incidents.  Most recently, it was revealed that FCPS schools were advertising college-prep enrichment programs as being available only to members of certain minority groups, and another story emerged about teachers who used racial and gender profiling to test AP History students about how voters cast their ballots.  These incidents, like the TJ debacle, have been dismissed by FCPS as innocent, one-time mistakes.  Another reasonable hypothesis, however, is that a misplaced sense of “equity” has become so entrenched in the mindset of FCPS that teachers and administrators don’t even see it when it occurs.

Mark Spooner, a retired attorney, is the founding editor of Fairfax Schools Monitor, where this article was first published.

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