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Federal judge rules new admissions policies at elite school discriminate

The ruling found a Virginia school system illegally discriminated against Asian Americans when it overhauled the admissions policies.
Attorney Erin Wilcox outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, VA
Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, VA on March 10, 2021 where her organization filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County's school board, alleging discrimination against Asian Americans over its revised admissions process for the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.Matthew Barakat / AP Photo file

A federal judge ruled Friday that a Virginia school system illegally discriminated against Asian Americans when it overhauled the admissions policies at an elite public school.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton found that impermissible “racial balancing” was at the core of the plan to overhaul admissions to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as “TJ.” The school routinely ranks as the best or one of the best public schools in the country, and slots at the school are highly competitive.

In 2020, the Fairfax County School Board significantly revamped the admissions process at the school. A standardized test that had been a linchpin of the admissions process was scrapped in favor of a system that set aside equal numbers of TJ slots at each of the county’s middle schools, among other changes.

Hilton, in his ruling, wrote, “The discussion of admissions changes was infected with talk of racial balancing from its inception.”

Although the school has enjoyed a stellar academic reputation for decades, Black and Hispanic students were woefully underrepresented in the student body.

TJ’s current freshman class, the first to be accepted under the new policies, reflected a significant change in racial makeup. Asian representation decreased from 73% to 54%. The percentage of Black students increased from 1% last year to 7%. Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%.

The school system insisted its new admissions policies are race-neutral; among other things, they noted that the panelists who evaluate applications don’t even know the race of the students they are evaluating.

The school system also argued that efforts to increase Black and Hispanic representation are legally permissible as long as the school board had not demonstrated a desire to harm Asian Americans.

John Foster, a lawyer for the school system, said the school board will consider an appeal of Hilton’s ruling.

“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,” Foster said in a written statement.

Hilton, though, said the backdrop under which the school board acted showed that racial considerations were first and foremost on the mind. He noted that the death of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted calls for racial justice across the country. He also noted that the Virginia General Assembly and Department of Education were pushing schools like TJ — known as “Governor’s Schools” in Virginia — to develop plans to quickly address the lack of Black and Hispanic students.

“Throughout this process, Board members and high-level FCPS officials expressed their desire to remake TJ admissions because they were dissatisfied with the racial composition of the school,” Hilton wrote.

The Coalition for TJ, the group of parents who challenged the admissions process in court with help from the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, said in a statement that it “is thrilled by Judge Claude Hilton’s clear renunciation of racism and discrimination and his powerful defense of equality.”

Hilton’s ruling comes roughly a month after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case filed by Asian American families against Harvard University over its admissions policies.