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Court says Thomas Jefferson admissions can remain as case proceeds

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Fairfax County Public Schools can keep using its controversial admissions system for prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology as a lawsuit challenging that system proceeds, according to the latest court ruling.

The decision, issued Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, means the 2,500 students who already applied for spots in the Thomas Jefferson Class of 2026 will continue through the remainder of the school’s “holistic review” system, which takes into account factors such as applicants’ socioeconomic status. The parent group, the Coalition for TJ, that sued over the admissions system has charged that the school’s admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans, allegations school officials have repeatedly denied.

In its order, the court also signaled that it would probably decide the suit in the school system’s favor. Two members of the court — Judges Toby Heytens, who wrote the order, and Robert King — voted for granting the stay, allowing for the current policy to stay in place temporarily. One judge, Allison Jones Rushing, voted against the stay and penned a dissenting opinion.

Heytens wrote: “I think the public interest favors a stay given the timing and logistical constraints associated with scrapping the current admissions policy and creating a new one so close to the end of the current admissions cycle. If the district court’s order is not stayed, thousands of students and their families will be thrown into disarray for the next several months.”

He added, “In my view, appellant Fairfax County School Board is likely to succeed” in the case.

In a statement Thursday, the Fairfax board’s chair, Stella Pekarsky, said that “we are pleased with the ruling from the Fourth Circuit.”

But the Coalition for TJ called the court’s decision “a grave error.” Members wrote in a statement Thursday that they are convening with legal counsel to ponder next steps.

“If the judges’ decision stands, we would see Fairfax County Public Schools usher in a second class of students to America’s No. 1 public high school through an unconstitutional race-based admissions process,” coalition members wrote. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The court’s granting of the stay is the latest twist in a legal fight that has sent Fairfax County Public Schools into overdrive working to defend the recently revised admissions system at TJ, as the highly sought-after school is known.

TJ, which is frequently ranked the No. 1 public high school in the nation and is seen as a steppingstone to an Ivy League education, has historically enrolled single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students. Hoping to boost diversity — and spurred by the nationwide reckoning with racism that followed George Floyd’s killing — top Fairfax school officials altered the admissions program in 2020 by eliminating a notoriously difficult test and a $100 application fee.

Instead, officials implemented a “holistic review” process that requires students to prove high grade-point averages and a difficult course load, as well as write a “problem-solving essay” focused on a question in math or science. It also asks admissions officials to consider four “experience factors” for each applicant, including the applicant’s socioeconomic status, whether the applicant speaks English at home, whether the applicant has a disability and whether the applicant’s middle school has historically sent few students to TJ.

Last year, the first year in which the admissions cycle took effect, Fairfax admitted the most diverse class of TJ freshmen in recent memory. The TJ Class of 2025 has more Black, Hispanic and low-income students than previous classes, while the proportion of White students receiving offers — 22 percent — was about the same as in the past four years. The percentage of Asian students receiving offers, however, dropped from a typical 70 percent to roughly 50 percent.

The Coalition for TJ sued to reverse the changes to the school’s admissions system in March 2021. The parents are being represented pro bono by conservative legal advocacy group — and known affirmative action opponent — the Pacific Legal Foundation. In their suit, the parents argue that the admissions changes are racially discriminatory and were designed to reduce the number of Asian students, charges that Fairfax officials have repeatedly denied.

In a late February ruling, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton sided with the parents on almost every point. He concluded that the admissions system constitutes an illegal act of “racial balancing” and that emails and text messages between Fairfax board members, which emerged during the lawsuit, “leave no material dispute that … the purpose of the Board’s admissions overhaul was to change the racial makeup of TJ to the detriment of Asian Americans.”

He ordered Fairfax to cease using the revised TJ admissions system. Fairfax officials at first requested a stay of the order — so they could finish processing applications for the 2,500 prospective members of the Class of 2026 who had already applied — but Hilton denied their request in mid-March.

On March 14, the Fairfax school board filed an appeal of Hilton’s ruling with the 4th Circuit Court.

In the order Thursday, Heytens wrote that he finds the coalition’s arguments unpersuasive and Hilton’s reasoning and findings deeply flawed, as well as at odds with previous Supreme Court rulings. In particular, he took issue with the idea that the TJ admissions process amounts to racial balancing, which is illegal.

“The Coalition appears to have identified no evidence that TJ’s current race neutral policy is intended to achieve a certain percentage of Black, Hispanic, or Asian American students,” Heytens wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, though, Rushing took the opposite view.

“The Board acted with an impermissible racial purpose when it sought to decrease enrollment of ‘overrepresented’ Asian American students at TJ to better ‘reflect the racial composition” of the surrounding area,’” she wrote. “Board member discussions were permeated with racial balancing, as were its stated aims and its use of racial data to model proposed outcomes.”

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