Board defends admissions policy at prestigious high school

A Virginia school board says its new admissions policy at a prestigious high school in northern Virginia does not discriminate against Asian American students and is not an attempt to achieve “racial balancing."

Racial Injustice-Schools
Racial Injustice-Schools

A new admissions policy at a prestigious high school in northern Virginia does not discriminate against Asian American students and is not an attempt to achieve “racial balancing," a school board argued in its response to an emergency request filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by a coalition of parents trying to overturn the policy.

The group Coalition for TJ last week asked the high court to vacate a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology to continue using its admissions policy while the Fairfax County School Board appeals a lower court ruling that found the policy is discriminatory.

In a response filed Wednesday in the Supreme Court, the school board insisted that its admissions policy is “race-neutral” and said the 4th Circuit was “entirely within its authority” to suspend the lower court ruling while the board appeals it.

The board said the admissions policy does not set any racial quotas, goals or targets, and is administered in a “race-blind manner,” with all applications anonymized so evaluators do not know the race of any individual applicant.

“The district court simply slapped the pejorative ‘racial balancing’ label on a race-neutral measure to improve geographic, socioeconomic and racial diversity, without any basis in the record,” the board said in its response.

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled in February that impermissible “racial balancing” was at the core of the new admissions policy at the selective school near the nation's capital. It is often ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country.

Hilton also turned down a request from the school system to delay implementation of his ruling, but a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit said the school board had met the legal requirements for a suspension of Hilton’s order while its appeal is pending.

For decades, Black and Hispanic students have been underrepresented in the student body. After criticism over its lack of diversity, the school board scrapped a standardized test that had been at the heart of the admissions process and opted instead for a process that sets aside slots at each of the county’s middle schools. It also includes “experience factors” like socioeconomic background.

The parents group argued in its lawsuit that Asian Americans, who constituted more than 70% of the student body, were unfairly targeted in the new policy.

The school’s current freshman class, which was admitted under the new policy, saw a significantly different racial makeup. Black students increased from 1% to 7%; Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%. Asian American representation decreased from 73% to 54%.

The school board said it will suffer irreparable harm if it is forced to change its policy now because the selection process for the incoming freshman class is already well underway. Final admissions decisions are due this month. “Overhauling the admissions process at this late date would be convulsive,” the school board argued in its response.

The case has been closely watched as courts continue to evaluate the role that racial considerations can play when deciding who should be admitted to a particular school. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process.

The parents’ group said the 4th Circuit judges made a “grave error” in allowing the school system to continue to use its new admissions process.

“Every American should be offended and outraged by the arrogance of the Fairfax County School Board in insisting on clinging to its state-sponsored racism and discrimination,” said Asra Nomani, a cofounder of Coalition for TJ and the mother of a Class of 2021 graduate.

"We are confident U.S. Chief Justice (John Roberts) will make a decision on the correct side of history for equality under the law for all.”

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