The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The erosion of excellence at Thomas Jefferson High School

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County in July 2020. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Hung Cao is a retired Navy Special Operations officer, a combat veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, a Vietnamese refugee and a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District.

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, my family came to Reston, where we lived in a low-income apartment housing complex while my father got his footing as an agricultural specialist. After moving to Niger in west Africa, for my father’s job, I learned resilience, studying in schools where French was the spoken language. At 12, my mother returned with my sisters and me to the United States so we could learn English. We studied in America’s public schools, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school to the American flag. I learned English watching the “A-Team,” and I dreamed of becoming a U.S. naval officer.

From an early age, I heard this message from my parents: “Position and wealth can be taken away, but education is forever.” Generosity was the first gift we received from the United States as a family. The opportunity to start over again after losing everything was the second, and an American education was the third. My love of learning flourished when I applied and was accepted to the first freshman class of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 1985.

Then a new magnet school in Northern Virginia, TJ would become the No. 1 high school in the nation, coveted for its focus in math, science and technology and its college acceptance rates. It was more than a brick building for the 337 graduates of the inaugural class. It was where we learned to take ownership of our future. It became home for this skinny Asian kid. My classmates, many now doctors or engineers, came from all different backgrounds. We were a nerdy hodgepodge of teenagers much more worried about studying than skin color. The unifying priority for us was that we wanted to be there, and even though we collectively groaned through those difficult four years, we thrived.

Our teachers pushed us, encouraged us and mentored us. Within those walls, we were iron sharpening iron and, in the end, graduated with a sense of pride that has carried us through each step of our adult lives. Being accepted to TJ and graduating from the school was the first achievement I could call my own, and I took that pride of ownership and allowed it to propel me through the next steps of my educational and professional career. I went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, earned a master’s degree in applied physics at Naval Postgraduate School, earned fellowships at Harvard and MIT and shared with my own children, years later, a deep love of learning. Knowledge alone isn’t enough. Knowledge and hard work through struggle and perseverance produces men and women who don’t waiver in the face of hardship and who stand up for what’s ultimately right.

When I retired in October, I was ready for peace but quickly realized that the fight hadn’t ended, it just took on a different name: a war on excellence.

Discrimination disguised as equality had overhauled admissions to my beloved school. When Fairfax County Public Schools revoked Thomas Jefferson’s colorblind merit-based application process in December 2020 in favor of a “hybrid” system with “bonus points” assigned to nonacademic factors, it began a battle between parents and administrators that has landed on the steps of the Supreme Court. In his February ruling against Fairfax County Public Schools, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton was clear that “racial balancing” disguised as racial diversity was “patently unconstitutional.”

Discriminating against one minority group to benefit another minority group has no place in our society, and it certainly has no place in our schools. What I see is an activist culture replacing competition and excellence with entitlement and it is eroding the foundation of who we are as a country. We have been awakened to the fact that our children have become the pawns in a twisted political game. We’re facing state-sanctioned discrimination disguised as “equity” and “diversity.”

This is not what I fought and bled for, and it must stop.

That is why I stood on the sidewalk outside the steps to the Supreme Court in solidarity with parents from Coalition for TJ, the grass-roots group that filed the lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board, the American flag flapping in the wind beside us.