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Judge denies Fairfax schools option to leave Thomas Jefferson admissions policy in place

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is located in Alexandria. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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A federal judge has denied the request of Fairfax County Public Schools for a stay of his order invalidating the admissions system at prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, marking another serious blow for Virginia’s largest school system.

The stay, if granted, would have allowed the school district of 180,000 to proceed with the current admissions system, a “holistic review” process that takes into account factors such as socioeconomic status, for applicants to the Class of 2026.

The Thomas Jefferson admissions cycle for these students is “already well underway,” Fairfax School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky (Sully) said previously, and U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton’s failure to grant a stay would cause “distress and uncertainty” for these students.

But at a hearing Friday, Hilton denied the school board’s request, saying there might be “some minor inconvenience” involved in changing the admissions system immediately but “I just don’t find irreparable harm.” He added that “this is not a new subject” and the school “studied this many times.”

Fairfax schools seek stay of order invalidating admissions system

Asked Friday what Fairfax will do regarding current applicants, school spokeswoman Julie Moult said, “On that specific point, we are looking at options and would hope to have some clarity soon.” She added that school board members have said failing to challenge Hilton’s ruling “would be tantamount to abandoning all race-neutral diversity efforts within our school community as a whole.” She said the board is reviewing its options.

“This ruling is so inconsistent with current law on diversity efforts that we cannot stand by and allow it to go unchallenged,” Pekarsky said in a statement Friday. “We cannot walk away now after making so much progress toward a fair and equitable system.”

In February, Hilton found that Fairfax’s holistic review admissions system at Thomas Jefferson constitutes an illegal act of racial balancing and discriminates against Asian American students. He ordered Fairfax to cease using its revised admissions system.

Hilton was ruling as part of a lawsuit challenging changes to the Thomas Jefferson admissions system, which were enacted in 2020 in hopes of boosting diversity at the school. The school is often ranked the top public high school in the country but has historically enrolled single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students.

The lawsuit was brought by the parent and alumni advocacy group Coalition for TJ, which opposes the admissions changes and is being represented pro bono by a California-based conservative legal group with a history of fighting affirmative action.

Fairfax’s revisions to admissions included removing a $100 application fee and a notoriously difficult test. In the first and only year the new system took effect, for the Class of 2025, the admitted class saw its percentage of Black and Hispanic students grow while the percentage of Asian admits fell from a typical 70 percent to about 50 percent.

Judge calls Thomas Jefferson High admissions changes illegal

Earlier this month, Fairfax officials, who have denied all charges of discrimination, filed a court petition asking Hilton for a stay of his order. Pekarsky said at the time that Hilton’s ruling “is not supported by law” and that Fairfax is considering appealing. She also said, “Fairfax believes that our new application process will eventually be proven to meet all legal requirements.”

At the hearing Friday, Sona Rewari, representing the school board, argued there isn’t time to start over this month when 2,500 students have already started applying under the revised Thomas Jefferson admissions system.

Rewari also said “the court’s decision breaks new legal ground,” and that “the Fourth Circuit could well reach a different conclusion in this case.” Hilton said there was some “likelihood of success” for the school board on appeal, but that the possibility wasn’t enough to convince him to grant the stay.

Erin Wilcox, representing the Coalition for TJ, said in court that if the school board was struggling now it was because they “ignored this court’s warning” six months ago that an alternative might be necessary.

Asra Nomani, a founder of Coalition for TJ and an alumni parent, said outside court that many admissions tests exist that would in no way be discriminatory. She was responding to Fairfax school officials asserting they cannot go back to administering the admissions test offered before the 2020 changes because that test is no longer available.

“Just pick another test,” Nomani said. She called the ruling “remarkable” and “wonderful,” while adding it was “unconscionable” that the Fairfax school system is continuing to defend an admissions process deemed unconstitutional by a federal court. “This is what civil rights are about,” she said. “The school system has been engaging in systemic racism.”