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Court ruling on Thomas Jefferson High School admissions changes draws mixed reactions

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (via Google Maps)

A federal judge’s ruling that recent changes to the admissions process for Fairfax County Public Schools’ prestigious magnet school were discriminatory has inspired both praise and condemnation.

As first reported by The Washington Post, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton issued an opinion on Friday (Feb. 25) finding that the elimination of a standardized test and other alterations to how students are admitted into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) were made “to the detriment of Asian-Americans.”

“It is clear that Asian-American students are disproportionately harmed by the [Fairfax County School] Board’s decision to overhaul TJ admissions,” Hilton wrote. “Currently and in the future, Asian-American applicants are disproportionately deprived of a level playing field in competing for both allocated and unallocated seats.”

Hilton also called the school board’s process for implementing the changes “remarkably rushed and shoddy” with “a noticeable lack of public engagement and transparency.”

The Coalition for TJ, a group of parents and alumni that filed the lawsuit in March 2021, celebrated the ruling as a victory “for parents everywhere who are questioning the unlawful acts of runaway school boards.”

“Coalition for TJ is thrilled by Judge Claude Hilton’s clear renunciation of racism and discrimination and his powerful defense of equality,” co-founder Asra Nomani said in a statement. “For almost two years, our courageous families have battled an incalcitrant and racist school board and superintendent intent on using ‘social justice,’ ‘equity’ and ‘anti-racism’ to perpetuate racism and discrimination against Asian students and families.”

The ruling was lauded by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made undoing the admissions changes part of his gubernatorial campaign, as well as advocacy groups like the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York.

FCPS maintained that TJ admissions changes approved by the School Board on Dec. 17, 2020, are merit-based and race-neutral, noting that the first class admitted under the new system still had a majority of Asian American students and a grade point average in line with previous years.

“The new process is blind to race, gender and national origin and gives the most talented students from every middle school a seat at TJ,” FCPS Division Counsel John Foster said. “We believe that a trial would have shown that the new process meets all legal requirements.”

FCPS said in a statement that it does not believe Hilton’s ruling is supported by law and is considering “asking a federal appeals court to review the decision.”

The TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) — which advocated for the admissions reforms, including a proposed merit lottery that was ultimately not implemented — urged the school board to appeal the decision, arguing that it will make TJ less accessible, including for low-income Asian Americans and English language learners.

“The district court ruling implies that any change that improves racial representative diversity will be seen as having a ‘disparate impact’ against Asian students,” TJAAG said in a statement. “This approach defies logic and prevents stakeholders from making necessary changes to what has remained a demonstrably discriminatory process for generations.”

FCPS started exploring an overhaul of TJ’s highly competitive admissions process in 2020 after the most recently admitted class included so few Black students the number couldn’t be reported, because it could potentially identify individual students.

The ruling was also criticized by a collection of national and local civil rights groups in a joint statement shared by the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“The court’s decision will harm underprivileged students of color,” the groups said. “It also essentially stymies school districts from addressing known problems of equal educational access with race neutral efforts. As racial justice advocates, we will continue to support race neutral policies that better ensure equal educational opportunities consistent with the Equal Protection Clause.”

With an appeal being considered, FCPS did not comment on how the judge’s ruling will affect the next class of TJ students, which went through the application process last fall.

Photo via Google Maps

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