Law & Courts

Lawsuit Challenges Admissions Changes Meant to Boost Diversity at Acclaimed High School

By Mark Walsh — March 10, 2021 5 min read
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A group representing Asian-American parents on Wednesday sued a Virginia school district over a new admissions plan designed to boost racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a highly selective magnet program that is considered one of the top academic high schools in the nation.

The group, called the Coalition for TJ, contends that a new “holistic review” admissions program will significantly reduce the proportion of Asian-American students at the high school in Alexandria, Va.

“Plaintiff’s data analysts project that Asian-American student enrollment at TJ will drop from 73 percent under the merit-based race-blind admissions system to 31 percent under the new racial-balancing admissions system for the Class of 2025,” says the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. “No other racial group is projected to lose seats. The greatest beneficiary of the new admissions system in terms of increased population will be white students.”

The Fairfax County school district did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

According to the 187,000-student district, in suburban Washington, D.C., Thomas Jefferson had a 2019-20 student enrollment that was 71.5 percent Asian, 19.48 percent non-Hispanic White, 2.6 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1.72 percent Black, and 4.70 percent other.

The school system, whose overall student enrollment is 38 percent White, 27 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent Black, has made efforts to boost diversity at Thomas Jefferson in recent years, to little avail. The 2020 racial reckoning over the death of George Floyd in police custody and related events prompted renewed efforts to increase diversity at the selective school, which was founded in 1985.

“Over the past 10 years, the [Thomas Jefferson] admissions process has undergone a series of changes that were intended to impact issues of diversity and inclusion,” the school system said in a white paper last year. “Nonetheless, … these changes have not made a significant impact on the diversity of the applicants or admitted students.”

The plan is the latest to address enrollment demographics

Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand last year proposed eliminating Thomas Jefferson’s admissions test in favor of five “regional pathways” based on middle schools, with each being allocated a set number of seats in the incoming first-year class to be determined by lottery. Under that plan, Black student enrollment would have increased to 7 percent, while Asian student enrollment would drop to 54 percent, and White student enrollment would increase to 25 percent.

The Fairfax County School Board voted to eliminate the entrance exam in October. In December, the board adopted an alternative new plan. Under that plan, the top 1.5 percent of each of the district’s middle schools who meet certain minimum academic standards will be eligible for admission to Thomas Jefferson. The district will then conduct a holistic review that examines factors including each student’s grade-point average, a problem-solving essay, and “experience factors” that include whether they are economically disadvantaged, English-language learners, or from underrepresented middle schools.

“Experience factors will allow consideration of contexts that require a student to demonstrate grit and persevere through challenges to meet the [Thomas Jefferson] applicant requirements,” the school system’s white paper said.

The district did not offer specific projections for changes in racial and ethnic balance under the holistic review plan. The new system is taking effect this spring for the class of 2025 that enters the high school this fall.

Suit alleges a ‘discriminatory intent’

The lawsuit by Coalition for TJ argues that the new admissions system violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause because “although facially race-neutral, it was enacted with discriminatory intent.”

The lawsuit cites a 2020 email from Thomas Jefferson Principal Ann Bonitatibus to the school community saying that the racial composition of the high school does not reflect that of the school system overall.

“If our demographics actually represented [Fairfax County Public Schools], we would enroll 180 Black and 460 Hispanic students, filling nearly 22 classrooms,” the principal’s email said.

“This email put the focus squarely on race and the racial balance at TJ, foreshadowing changes to come,” says the suit, which cites other comments by officials in the district about the need to make Thomas Jefferson more representative.

“Defendants have been forthright that the changes to the TJ admissions policy are intended to reduce the proportion of Asian-American students enrolled at TJ because they are ‘overrepresented’ compared to the rest of [Fairfax County Public Schools],” the suit says.

“They want to match the racial makeup of the county as a whole,” Glenn E. Roper, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing Coalition for TJ, said in an interview. “That was the motivating purpose. School districts can change an admissions program, but they can’t do it with a racially discriminatory purpose.”

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the holistic consideration of race in college admissions but has a challenge to Harvard’s race-conscious admissions program awaiting a decision from the justices on whether they will review that case.

In 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down two school districts’ voluntary race-conscious plans for assigning students to schools, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a concurrence that suggested there were permissible ways for districts to boost racial diversity through race-conscious means.

One of those was “drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods,” Kennedy wrote in his concurrence, which some legal experts consider the controlling opinion in Parents Involved because much of the main opinion in that case was a mere plurality.

The Fairfax County plan for Thomas Jefferson High aims to be a race-neutral plan for increasing racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity, the very kind of plan that many advocates have urged schools and colleges to adopt instead of race-conscious policies.

It will be up to a federal district court, for starters, to decide whether the plan was adopted with the impermissible racial motivation alleged in the lawsuit.

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