Parents of Virginia Students Allege Discrimination in Supreme Court Petition

August 24, 2023 by Tom Ramstack
Parents of Virginia Students Allege Discrimination in Supreme Court Petition

WASHINGTON — Parents of Asian American students at a prestigious Alexandria, Virginia, high school petitioned the Supreme Court this week to review what they call a racially discriminatory admissions policy.

The petition represents the latest battleground for schools that try to promote ethnically diverse student bodies without discriminating against any single group.

The revised Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology admission policy dropped the percentage of Asian American students from 73% to 54%. The magnet school is ranked among the nation’s top high schools.

It also raised the percentage of Black and Hispanic students to their highest levels from the previous single digits.

The new policy adopted in 2020 placed a higher emphasis on socioeconomic factors to promote a student body as diverse as the surrounding community. Incoming freshmen were rated on non-academic “experience factors.”

The Fairfax County School Board’s new “holistic review” of applicants eliminated a difficult admissions test. It evaluated applicants on income status of their families, English-speaking ability, whether they have disabilities and whether they come from historically underrepresented schools. 

It replaced a policy that made grade point average and scores on math and science tests top priorities.

Parents who filed the petition to the Supreme Court said the new policy was an attempt to keep Asian American students out. They called it a violation of the students’ 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.

As the Fairfax County School Board formulated the new admissions policy, “Board members spoke openly about the need to readjust the TJ student body along racial lines,” says the Supreme Court petition filed by parents under the name Coalition for TJ.

The petition filed by attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation quoted Supreme Court precedent, saying, “There is no such thing as ‘benign’ racial discrimination” in school admissions policies and adding, “A benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter.”

Last year, a U.S. district judge agreed with the parents when he called the 2020 admissions policy discriminatory “racial balancing” and “patently unconstitutional.”

The Fairfax County School Board appealed, prompting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to reverse the lower court decision in May.

“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 4th Circuit’s opinion says.

The Thomas Jefferson High School admissions policy is similar to strategies universities nationwide are adopting to encourage diversity among their students.

The schools are motivated to seek race-neutral policies partly by a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Supreme Court said they violated the 14th Amendment.

A ruling against the Fairfax County School Board would severely restrict any school’s legal authority to promote ethnic diversity through admissions policies, according to legal experts.

After the Coalition for TJ filed its Supreme Court petition, it was denounced by six organizations representing Asian American, Black and Hispanic people in Virginia.

One of them was the Virginia NAACP, whose president, Robert N. Barnette Jr., said in a statement, “A publicly funded educational resource, like TJ, should be equally available to all qualified students from eligible middle schools. The school district’s more equitable admissions policy increases opportunities for all students, which the numbers bear out: more low-income Asian American students were accepted to TJ, and more sorely underrepresented Black and Latino students were able to apply to the school.”

He implied criticism of the Supreme Court ruling in the Harvard and University of North Carolina case when he said, “We reject the shameful effort to have the court cement a status quo that would have continued to under-identify students with fewer resources, who nevertheless deserve the same fair shot at educational advancement.”

Joining arguments in favor of the Asian American litigants was Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, who filed an amicus curiae petition in the case.

“Thomas Jefferson High School has been consistently among the top public schools in the country, and they created and maintained this achievement with a merit-based admissions process,” Miyares said in a statement. “But over the past year, Thomas Jefferson High School changed their policy to prioritize an individual’s race over merit. By doing so, Thomas Jefferson High School has discriminated against deserving students and violated the equal protection clause. This is not equality,”

There is no guarantee the Supreme Court will review the Thomas Jefferson High School case. The court usually accepts no more than 150 cases a year out of about 7,000 petitions for review.

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