BREAKING: FCPS wins appeal of lawsuit challenging TJ admissions

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 4:20 p.m.) The current admissions process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) does not discriminate against Asian American students, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled.

A majority of the three-judge panel backed the Fairfax County School Board’s argument in support of admissions policy changes intended to increase diversity at the prestigious magnet school, reversing a lower court’s ruling that sided with the Coalition for TJ.

The advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the school board in March 2021, arguing that the changes adopted in 2020 were intended to reduce the number of Asian students at TJ in violation of the Constitution.

In an opinion published today (Tuesday), Circuit Judge Robert King says the Coalition failed to prove that the school board intended to discriminate against Asian students, who have, in fact, seen “greater success in securing admission to TJ under the policy than students from any other racial or ethnic group.”

“After thorough consideration of the record and the appellate contentions, we are satisfied that the challenged admissions policy does not disparately impact Asian American students and that the Coalition cannot establish that the Board adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent,” King wrote.

Since taking effect with the Class of 2025, the admissions changes — which included dropping a required test and application fee and taking into account a student’s economic, special education or English-learner status — have resulted in offers going to a broader range of students in terms of race, geography and income.

The Class of 2025 was the first in a decade to accept students from all middle schools. It also saw an uptick in Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students, Fairfax County Public Schools reported. Both that year and last year, Asian students still received a majority of offers.

“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,” John Foster, the school board’s division counsel, said in a statement. “We look forward to offering seats to a new group of remarkable and incredibly well-qualified young scholars in the years to come.”

U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton had ruled in February 2022 that Asian students were “disproportionately harmed” by the admissions changes, which he said were implemented in a “remarkably rushed and shoddy” process.

Hilton ordered that FCPS stop using the new policy, but the appeals court agreed to let it stay in place while the lawsuit continued.

While King said that Hilton’s judgment “went fatally awry” in not addressing how racial and ethnic groups other than Asians fared under the new policy, Circuit Judge Allison Rushing argued a dissenting opinion that the changes were “passed with discriminatory intent and disproportionately impact a particular racial group,” even if they appear race-neutral on paper.

“The twelve-member Board plainly stated its intention to craft an admissions policy for TJ that would reform the racial composition of the student body to reflect the racial demographics of the district,” she wrote.

The Coalition for TJ says it wasn’t surprised by the ruling and intends to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are disappointed by today’s ruling, but we are not discouraged,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox, who has been representing the coalition, said. “Discrimination against students based on their race is wrong and violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to end this illegal practice once and for all.”

The Supreme Court is already considering a case on affirmative action in college admissions. Some universities have started to review their practices, with the mostly conservative justices expected to defy precedent by declaring race-conscious admissions unlawful.

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