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Supreme Court lets Thomas Jefferson High School admissions policy stand

Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Supreme Court on Monday left in place an admissions system for a prestigious Northern Virginia science and technology high school that administrators said opened the magnet program to a wider socioeconomic range of students but opponents claimed discriminated against Asian American applicants.

The court did not explain its reasoning, as is common in emergency applications. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch noted their disagreement.

The legal battle is between a group of parents called the Coalition for TJ and the Fairfax County School Board over admission to what is often ranked as the nation’s best high school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known locally as TJ.

A federal judge earlier this year said a new admissions policy adopted in 2020 was improperly motivated by the Fairfax County Public Schools’ desire for racial balancing, and that it disproportionally harmed Asian American applicants who made up a majority of the school’s student body.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit disagreed, and said the admissions program could be used while legal battles continue. The judges said the policy was race-neutral, and a likely constitutional way to build a geographically and socioeconomically diverse student body more representative of the five Northern Virginia districts that feed into the school.

More than 2,500 students already have applied for 550 spots in the TJ Class of 2026 and are expecting decisions by next month. Fairfax school officials told courts that disrupting the selection process now would be chaotic.

In a statement Monday celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling, Fairfax schools’ division counsel John Foster said “we continue to believe our new plan for TJ admissions is merit-based and race-blind.” He added he feels “confident” the appeals court will ultimately rule in the school system’s favor.

The Coalition for TJ wrote in its own statement that the Supreme Court’s decision means the school system “can continue with its illegal, unconstitutional and anti-Asian admissions process.” The group added that “our struggle for justice is not over [and] we are not at all dissuaded.”

The request raised issues the court will confront next term when it examines the admission policy at Harvard, where challengers say the university’s consideration of race as one factor in building a diverse student body had hurt Asian American applicants. The court has also agreed to hear a challenge aimed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But TJ’s policy is an attempt to encourage diversity without explicitly considering race.

The controversy dates to summer 2020, when nationwide protests against systemic racism spurred by George Floyd’s killing led Fairfax administrators to propose radical changes to the school’s admissions program.

TJ was known for its quality, but also for its lack of diversity, having long enrolled single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students. It draws students from Fairfax as well as Arlington County, Falls Church City, Loudoun County and Prince William County, according to the school’s website.

Two years ago, Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand proposed a series of changes meant to boost diversity at the school — including nixing a notoriously difficult admissions test and $100 application fee. In fall and winter of 2020, the school board approved Brabrand’s changes, also agreeing to institute a new “holistic review” admissions process for TJ.

Under the new system, each middle school that feeds into TJ would presumptively be allocated seats equal to 1.5 percent of the school’s eighth-grade population. Applicants must achieve an unweighted GPA of at least 3.5 while taking higher-level courses and complete a math or science problem-solving essay and a “Student Portrait Sheet.”

Applicants’ races are not considered. Administrators weigh four “experience factors” for each applicant including whether they are low-income, have special needs, come from households that do not speak English or attend a middle school that has historically sent few students to TJ.

In June 2021, the school admitted its first class of applicants under the new system — accepting the most diverse group of students in recent memory. A full quarter of offers went to low-income students, 11 percent to Hispanic students and 7 percent to Black students. Previously, these demographic groups had represented somewhere between 1 percent and 5 percent of classes.

The percentage of offers going to White students held roughly steady at 22 percent but the percentage of offers sent to Asian students dropped significantly, falling from a typical 70 percent to about 55 percent.

In February, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton sided with the parent group on pretty much every count, calling the TJ admissions system an illegal act of “racial balancing.” He concluded that “the purpose of the Board’s admissions overhaul was to change the racial makeup to TJ to the detriment of Asian Americans” and issued an order forbidding Fairfax from using its revised admissions system.

Fairfax officials asked the 4th Circuit to put Hilton’s order on hold while the legal battle continued, so that it could finish processing the 2,500 applicants.

In late March, a panel on a 2-to-1 vote granted a stay, keeping the admissions system in place for the Class of 2026.

“The race neutral policy challenged here includes no racial quotas or targets,” wrote Judge Toby Heytens. “And 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.”

The coalition, joined by new Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) and Republican attorneys general from 15 states, asked the Supreme Court for emergency action reinstating Hilton’s order and forbidding school administrations from using the policy.

“Though facially race-neutral, the new policy targeted Asian-American applicants with surgical precision,” Miyares said in his brief to the Supreme Court. He added “the proportion of Asian-American applicants extended offers for the class of 2025 dropped 19% from the previous year, while offers extended to students of every other racial group increased.”

The Fairfax board responded that there is no evidence of discriminatory intent or that the policy disproportionally hurt Asian American applicants. “During the one previous year under the challenged policy, Asian American applicants made up a higher percentage of students offered a spot at TJ (54.36%) than of total applicants (48.69%),” said a brief filed by the board’s attorney, former Obama administration solicitor general Donald B. Verrilli Jr.

Additionally, he wrote, “the Board is aware of no decision of any appellate court — and the Coalition has cited none — holding that public education authorities violate the Equal Protection Clause by adopting race-neutral student admissions criteria in order to promote increased socioeconomic and racial diversity.”

“To the contrary, this Court has repeatedly endorsed the use of race-neutral policies to promote diversity,” Verrilli wrote, citing the court’s approval of Texas’s policy of reserving spots at the University of Texas for the top 10 percent of each high school in the state.

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