Federal Court Upholds Admissions Policy at Virginia High School

May 26, 2023 by Tom Ramstack
Federal Court Upholds Admissions Policy at Virginia High School
(Photo by GUVO59 via Pixabay)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal court in Virginia this week upheld a state high school’s admission policy intended to achieve racial equity despite complaints from parents that it discriminates against Asian American students.

Administrators of the highly rated Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, described the most controversial part of the policy as “racial balancing.”

Previously, the magnet school known locally as TJ used a standardized test as the key element of its admissions. The result was a student body that consisted of 73% Asian Americans.

Black people made up 1% of the students while Hispanics were 3%. Just under a quarter of the students were White.

The ruling comes amid a reconsideration of school admission policies by the Supreme Court.

A pending case filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina seeks to overturn admissions policies that allow race to be considered.

The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, argue that race as an affirmative action measure in admissions is the same as racial discrimination that violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the universities.

The brief argues that ethnic diversity is a “compelling governmental interest” that could be considered as one factor in admissions to promote the greater good of society.

A Supreme Court ruling in the pivotal case is expected within weeks.

Thomas Jefferson High School’s 2020 revision switched to a policy that set aside slots in equal numbers to each of Fairfax County’s middle schools, whose students reflect the diversity of the local community. It gave added weight to students who were economically disadvantaged or whose native language was not English.

The school got rid of the standardized test in pursuit of reasoning similar to the ACLU brief in the Harvard and North Carolina case.

After the policy took effect, Black people increased to 7% and Hispanics to 11% of the students. Asian Americans fell to 54% of the student body.

Parents of Asian Americans using the name Coalition for TJ argued the new policy deprives their children of admission despite their academic merit. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is rated as the best high school in the United States by some measures. 

The U.S. District Court ruled for the parents last year to say the school must cease the “racial balancing” admissions policy. 

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton wrote in his decision that “the purpose of the [school] board’s admissions overhaul was to change the racial makeup of TJ to the detriment of Asian Americans.” He called the policy “patently unconstitutional.”

The Fairfax County School Board appealed. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned the ruling.

The majority opinion written by Judge Robert King said the school had a legitimate interest in maintaining diversity. Calling the policy discrimination against Asian Americans “simply runs counter to common sense,” the opinion said.

It added, “The challenged admissions policy does not disparately impact Asian American students and the coalition cannot establish that the board adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent.”

The Fairfax County School Board issued a statement saying they agree with the ruling.

“The court reached the correct decision, and we firmly believe this admission plan is fair and gives qualified applicants at every middle school a fair chance of a seat at TJ,” the statement said.

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