The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fairfax schools violated students’ civil rights, plain and simple

A student looks at questions during a college test preparation class in January 2016. (Alex Brandon/AP)
4 min

An earlier version of this column gave the incorrect name for Virginia's attorney general. It is Jason Miyares. This version have been corrected.

Maybe you remember when schools encouraged parents to sport bumper stickers on their cars when students made the honor roll. In the wealthy Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax County, Va., taking pride in achievements is against school rules.

Writer Asra Q. Nomani broke the news Dec. 21 in the City Journal: “For years, two administrators at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) have been withholding notifications of National Merit Awards from the school’s families, most of them Asian, thus denying students the right to use those awards to boost their college-admission prospects and earn scholarships.” At least 1,200 students over five years, Nomani alleged, had been denied notification of their award.

By the time I interviewed Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) about this abomination on Jan. 12, two more Fairfax schools had admitted to the practice of suppressing National Merit recognitions. “There was a superintendent of the Fairfax County schools who has clearly stated her position that she wants equal outcomes for all students at any cost,” Youngkin told me. The idea, he said, originated with a consultant who was paid $455,000 “of taxpayer money. This is what you get when you do that … a system now that wants to suppress the grand performance of some students, so other ones don’t feel bad.”

George F. Will: In some Virginia schools, ‘equity’ seems to mean hiding achievement

It got worse. Four more high schools in Fairfax County admitted to the same practice, followed by schools in adjacent Loudoun and Prince William counties. At this writing, 17 high schools in this single ecosystem have acknowledged that they failed to tell young people and their families of hard-earned successes. There is no hiding the fastest kid on the track team or the best soloist in the band. But excellence in academics was covered up — no matter how much work students put into their studies.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares has opened a civil rights investigation to see whether state officials were motivated by illegal discrimination. If, for example, administrators sought to hide achievement gaps between Asian American students and their classmates, that bias should engage the attention not just of Miyares but also the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

Every law student learns in constitutional law that government officials cannot use race as a motivation for their actions except in a handful of very rare cases. If there is evidence that any Fairfax County official arrived at this outrageous action for reasons having to do with race, that’s a violation of the Constitution. Moreover, if there is an injury done “under color of state law,” the school district might be on the hook for damages. There are no do-overs in college admissions or financial aid decisions. Students who missed out because they were denied the chance to make the best possible case for themselves have every right to be outraged and might be owed money.

Fairfax County administrators are long on apologies but short on details as to who decided to embrace this dangerous idea. It appears that Mutiu Fagbayi has a lot to do with it. His company, Performance Fact of Oakland, Calif., received that lucrative contract referred to by Youngkin to “train” — indoctrinate? — school officials in an “Equity-centered Strategic Plan.” The plan included a goal that is impossible to achieve: “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.”

Because the schools could not accomplish an impossible goal, they must have decided the next best thing was to hide all evidence of outcomes. They can’t be blamed for differences if those differences remain secret. How widespread is this insanity? Is Fairfax County the only school district in America so blatantly indifferent to the Constitution’s protections and the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

It is a perverse and deeply un-American mind-set that penalizes merit — in any field of endeavor, whether academics or the arts, sports or languages. People are different; that’s a good thing, and recognizing it is the first step to real diversity. What’s more, the legal current is running against the idea of lowering the top to raise those below. The highest profile case of this Supreme Court term is Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, and every serious observer I know expects at least six justices to end the use of race in college admissions once and forever.

Such “race consciousness” is already unconstitutional in public high schools. Lawyers for the Fairfax County School District are probably frantic now, hoping for a way out of this lawsuit in the making. I suggest they adopt a simple three-step strategy: One, find out who made these decisions and fire them. Two, identify the injured students and apologize to them and their families. And three, get the district’s checkbook ready. I think they’re going to need it.