On Friday, Feb. 25, a federal judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division ruled that the Fairfax County School Board's new admissions policy for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, first implemented for the Class of 2025, is "discriminatory."
In his ruling, Claude M. Hilton, United States District Judge, wrote, "The proper remedy for a legal provision enacted with discriminatory intent is invalidation."
Hilton itemized within his 31-page Opinion the School Board's process and reasons for bringing about racial balance at TJ. He discussed how TJ's admission change was "infected with the talk of racial balancing from its inception."
According to Hilton, the purpose of the Board's admissions overhaul was to change the racial makeup of TJ to the detriment of Asian-Americans. "The Board's overhaul of TJ admissions has had, and will have, a substantial impact on Asian-American applicants to TJ," added Hilton in his Opinion.
"For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff The Coalition for TJ is entitled to Summary Judgment, and the Defendant Fairfax County School Board's Motion for a Summary Judgment is denied."
According to Erin Wilcox, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney and lead attorney for the TJ case, the summary judgment is a final decision from the federal district court judge.
TJ is an elite, regional Fairfax County Public School and a Virginia state-chartered magnet school, often ranked as the top high school in the nation. The school is under the sole direction and control of the Fairfax County School Board. It admits students who meet the eligibility requirements not only from Fairfax and the City of Fairfax but four participating Northern Virginia school divisions — Arlington County, Falls Church City, Loudoun County, and Prince William County. TJ admits slightly more than 400 first-year students from over 3,000 who apply each year.
According to Hilton, the altered TJ admissions policy did away with the previous three merit-based standardized tests, a minimum core 3.0-grade point average, and that students have completed or be enrolled in Algebra I. The policy changed other minimum application requirements as well.
For students to be eligible for TJ under the new policy, they must maintain a 3.5 GPA, be enrolled in a full-year honors Algebra I or higher course, an honors science course, and at least one other honors course, or the Young Scholars program.
Additionally, the new policy, implemented in late fall 2020, moved away from the multi-stage evaluation process to a one-round holistic evaluation. It weighed GPA, a student portrait sheet, a problem solving essay, and "experience factors," attending a middle school deemed historically underrepresented at TJ, coming from an economically disadvantaged family, and statuses as an English language learner and a special education student, into admission considerations.
"The challenged policy renders their children (the Coalition's) unable to compete on a level playing field for a racial purpose," Hilton wrote. He ruled that the case presents substantial evidence of disparate impact. According to Hilton, for the Class of 2025, the proportion of admitted Asian-American students fell to about 54 percent. Whereas, “for the previous five years, Asian-American students never made up less than 65 percent of the admitted class,” Hilton wrote.
"The undisputed evidence demonstrates precisely how the Board's actions caused and will continue to cause, a substantial racial impact. The Board instituted a system that does not treat all applicants to TJ equally,” Hilton wrote.
While the new process allots seats equal to 1.5 percent of each school's eighth-grade class, applicants who do not attain a place at their school must compete for one of only approximately 100 unallocated seats throughout the area.
In the decision, Hilton said that the set-aside disproportionately forces Asian-American students to compete against more eligible and interested applicants. When applicants outside the top 1.5 percent are placed in the unallocated pool of 100, they are also treated unequally.
FCPS declared that the "experience factors" would be used in their holistic review. "One of these factors is whether a student attends a middle school deemed ‘historically underrepresented’ at TJ. According to Hilton, none of the six primary FCPS TJ feeder schools qualify for that consideration, so students at these schools are at a disadvantage in the unallocated pool of 100 possible seated applicants compared to their peers from disadvantaged schools.
According to Hilton, the Board's main problem is its concentration on the goal of having TJ match the demographics of the surrounding area, which is predominantly expressed in racial terms. "Far from a compelling interest, racial balancing for its own sake is ''patently unconstitutional,” Hilton wrote. He added, "The Board cannot transform racial balancing into a compelling interest simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity.’"
Finally, Hilton said that even if the Board could establish a compelling reason to justify racially discriminatory changes to the TJ admissions process, the Board must demonstrate that the revised policy is "necessary" to achieve that interest.
According to Hilton, the plan must be a "last resort" to accomplish the purportedly compelling interest. He suggested increasing the size of TJ and providing free test prep before defaulting to a system "that treats applicants unequally in hopes of engineering a particular racial outcome."
“This is a monumental win for parents and students here in Fairfax County, but also for equal treatment in education across the country,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox. “We hope this ruling sends the message that government cannot choose who receives the opportunity to attend public schools based on race or ethnicity.”
As for the next steps, for the defendant and plaintiff, Wilcox said, "The defendant has 30 days to appeal the district court's decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Because they prevailed, the plaintiff has no next steps at this time."