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Country's Best High School Ends Up in Affirmative Action Antinomy

Affirmative action plan and books.
By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

In case SCOTUS didn't get enough affirmative-action action last term, an admissions controversy in Fairfax County, Virginia, may be on their docket soon. This time, though, it's not about college admissions, but high school. A group of Asian students and parents calling itself the "Coalition for TJ" is taking issue with a new diversity-focused policy implemented by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, a prominent magnet school in Alexandria. The parents in the Coalition see the local government as responsible for violating their children's Constitutional rights, so they've taken it to court in a lawsuit called Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board. Since the details are a little complicated, we'll summarize the facts of the case and the arguments presented by each side.

TJ's Diversity Dilemma

As far as public high schools go, Thomas Jefferson is a national name. Locally called "TJ," it's often ranked the best in the country. Its highly accomplished graduates go on to elite universities and make an impact across more industries than just STEM. Unsurprisingly, admission into the school is highly competitive. Until a few years ago, the admissions process involved mostly rounds of standardized tests given to applicants who met basic qualifications requirements (residing in the right districts, meeting a minimum GPA of 3.0, and having taken algebra). During that time period, the incoming classes were neither socioeconomically nor racially diverse; for example, there were very few students who were low-income, ESL, special education, Black, Hispanic, or multiracial.

So, Thomas Jefferson's namesake high school seemed about as friendly to racial equality as its namesake Founding Father. In an attempt to improve admissions prospects for such underrepresented groups, the county school Board (consisting of 12 elected members) made various changes to TJ's admissions system between 2010 and 2020, but these changes failed to be very effective. About 20% of the student body remained white, and about 72% was Asian. At that point, the state of Virginia got involved, including the Secretary of Education, Superintendent of Schools, and state Governor, and created a task force to set and meet "diversity goals."

In the meantime, parents of Asian students who had applied or planned to apply to TJ formed the Coalition for TJ, concerned that the task force "possessed an 'anti-Asian' motivation." They expressed their concern to the Secretary of Education, who dismissed the claims as “outrageous" and emphasized TJ's diversity problems.

New Policy for the New Decade

By 2021, TJ's admissions process was already underway for an overhaul. After many different attempts by the Superintendent to propose policy modifications and many rounds of back and forth with the Board to modify changes, a new admissions policy was agreed upon.

The new system involved scrapping the $100 application fee and standardized tests while increasing the GPA requirement to a 3.5. It implemented a holistic review based on a "portrait sheet" describing the applicant's skills and four "experience factors" (eligibility for free/reduced meals; ESL status; special education status; and whether they were from an underrepresented middle school). Most notably, the new system allocated a certain number of seats to each middle school within TJ's participating school divisions (the year before, eight of the county's 28 middle schools had sent no students at all to TJ). After those seats were filled, the roughly 100 remaining applicants could be filled by students from anywhere, regardless of which school they came from, including private and home-school students.

The admissions policy also provided that each applicant's "name, race, ethnicity, or sex collected on the application form will not be provided to admissions evaluators," but instead the applicant "will be identified to the evaluators only by an applicant number." The Board had allegedly resolved that the new admission process “must use only race-neutral methods that do not seek to achieve any specific racial or ethnic mix, balance or targets." In any case, unlike the changes implemented throughout the previous decade, this new policy certainly made waves in the TJ student body.

Admissions Demographics Finally See Changes

This new policy was adopted for TJ's class matriculating in the fall of 2021 and graduating in 2025. The number of applications rose by almost 1,000 students from the year before. The average GPA of those applicants was the highest in five years. The class of 2025 included significantly more low-income, ESL, and female students than before. And for the first time in over a decade, all 28 of the county's middle schools sent students to TJ.

Over half (54%) of admissions offers went to Asian students (49% of whom accepted). This far outpaced offers awarded to other racial groups (Black students received 8%; Hispanic 11%; White 22%; and "multiracial/other" 5%). Though Asians were still the biggest admitted racial group, the proportion of Asians offered seats had gone down from its previous rate of 65-75%. On the other hand, Asians from underrepresented middle schools increased sixfold, and the number of low-income Asian students went from a single student the previous year to 51.

Coalition Bring Constitutional Claim

Throughout this time, the Coalition for TJ, purporting to represent the interests of Asian students, had been vocal in their opposition to the policy. In 2021, as the class of 2025 was being put together, the Coalition sued the Board in federal court, alleging that the new policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Coalition asserted that even though the policy is "facially race-neutral" in its stated intent, the Board actually adopted it with the purpose of discriminating on race because the Board "specifically intended to reduce the percentage of Asian-American students who enroll in TJ."

The federal district court agreed that the new admissions policy used "racial balancing" which was not allowed under the Constitution. But when the Board appealed the case, the Fourth Circuit reversed. The appellate court took the Board's side, saying that the policy did not discriminate against Asian students.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to step in. And just after they seem to have undone decades of college affirmative action in their recent decision of Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. It's not clear if SCOTUS will hear this case just yet, as they may be waiting for other similar cases to pop up and get through lower courts first. After all, we certainly expected more questions, not less, in the wake of the Students for Fair Admissions decision. Now, Coalition for TJ just confirms what we already suspected: the question of affirmative action is far from resolved.

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