Countywide

Supreme Court asked to take up lawsuit challenging ‘race-neutral’ TJ admissions policy

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Coalition for TJ is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to consider its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s admissions policy, which was revised in 2020 with the goal of diversifying the student body.

In the petition filed Monday (Aug. 21), the advocacy group argues that the changes approved by the Fairfax County School Board discriminate against Asian students, who saw their share of the magnet school’s incoming classes drop from more than 70% to closer to 60% in the past few years.

The coalition indicated it would take the case to the country’s highest federal court after a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 in the school board’s favor on May 23.

But the fight over TJ’s admissions has grown in significance following the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision to prohibit colleges from considering race in admissions decisions. Where that case tackled policies that explicitly take race into account, the Coalition for TJ contends that race-neutral policies designed to boost underrepresented groups can still violate other students’ equal protection rights.

“The Fourth Circuit’s ruling merits this Court’s review because it presents a question of national importance that the Court has yet to answer directly,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorneys representing the coalition wrote in their petition. “Coming as it does on the heels of last Term’s decision curtailing racial discrimination in higher education admissions, this is one of several ongoing challenges to competitive K-12 admissions criteria that seek to accomplish a racial objective ‘indirectly’ because it ‘cannot be done directly.'”

Spurred by student and alumni activism, the school board overhauled the TJ admissions process after Fairfax County Public Schools reported that fewer than 10 Black students had been accepted in both 2019 and 2020.

In addition to eliminating an application fee and rigorous standardized test, the new policy bumped up the GPA requirement to 3.5, granted eligibility to the top 1.5% of eighth graders at each middle school, introduced a “portrait sheet” where students discuss their skills and write a problem-solving essay, and allows consideration of students’ economic status or involvement in English as a Second Language and special education programs.

The changes were the latest attempt to bring more Black, Hispanic and low-income students to TJ, which is often ranked among the top high schools in the U.S. but has long faced scrutiny for admissions practices that critics argued catered to families who could afford to live in certain neighborhoods and pay for private tutoring and test-preparation services.

Since the revised policy took effect in 2021, FCPS has touted increased racial, geographic and economic diversity in each of the three admitted classes, which have all included students from every Fairfax County middle school — something that hadn’t happened in the prior decade.

FCPS has argued that the changes were race-blind and benefitted all groups, including lower-income Asian students. The appeals court judges who sided with the school board said the Coalition for TJ failed to prove that Asian students were “disparately” affected and “that the Board adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent.”

FCPS didn’t return a request for comment by press time.

In a joint statement, a collection of civil rights and community advocacy groups — including the Virginia NAACP, TJ Alumni for Racial Justice, CASA Virginia, Hispanic Federation, Hamkae Center and Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development (AALEAD) — argued that the Coalition for TJ’s lawsuit would limit, rather than expand, equal access to education.

“In essence, the plaintiff seeks to cement pre-existing inequalities by prohibiting school districts from trying to remedy any unfairness in the admissions process that may change the racial makeup of accepted students,” the groups said.

“Every parent wants to know their child will not be disadvantaged in our public education system no matter their personal wealth or language abilities,” Hamkae Center Director Sookyung Oh said. “It is imperative that students from communities of color, including Asian Americans, will not be disadvantaged by an unfair admissions process and will have the same access…only previously afforded to those with the wealth and privilege to get their children into schools like TJ.”