Conservative Group Challenges Racial Proxies In K-12 Admissions
Thomas Jefferson High School admitted less than 10 black students to the Class of 2024 sparking outrage and debate ALEXANDRIA, VA - JULY 1 Thomas Jefferson High School admitted less than 10 black students to the Class of 2024 sparking outrage and debate among current students and alumni is seen July 01, 2020 in Alexandria, VA. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images) The Washington Post / Contributor
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Contributor via Getty Images

A conservative group called Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) is challenging recent changes to K-12 admissions policies in public schools across the country.

Erin Wilcox, attorney at PLF, told The Daily Wire, “This will be the first lawsuit of its kind where parents have challenged these racial proxies, where a judge would find that that is unconstitutional. So that’s a massive win, especially because lots of school districts across the country are kind of watching this case.”

PLF is looking to push back against so-called diversity initiatives in school admissions that a lot of K-12 schools have implemented in recent years. They filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of parents, students, alumni, staff, and community members in Virginia over school admissions policies at a high school named Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

On Friday, a federal judge ruled that Fairfax County school authorities broke the law by altering admissions requirements at the high school to deliberately limit the amount of Asian-American students enrolled at the school. 

As WTOP reported: “The ruling from U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton found that impermissible ‘racial balancing’ was at the core of the plan to overhaul admissions to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as ‘TJ.’ The school routinely ranks as the best or one of the best public schools in the country, and slots at the school are highly competitive.”

Hilton reportedly wrote in his ruling, “The discussion of admissions changes was infected with talk of racial balancing from its inception.”

WTOP noted:

Hilton, though, said the backdrop under which the school board acted showed that racial considerations were first and foremost on the mind. He noted that the death of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted calls for racial justice across the country. He also noted that the Virginia General Assembly and Department of Education were pushing schools like TJ — known as “Governor’s Schools” in Virginia — to develop plans to quickly address the lack of Black and Hispanic students.

“Throughout this process, Board members and high-level FCPS officials expressed their desire to remake TJ admissions because they were dissatisfied with the racial composition of the school,” Hilton wrote.

With the Thomas Jefferson case, the litigation is against specific policy changes made by the school, which the legal group says primarily hurt Asian students. The school claims that they’re maintaining merit-based and race-blind criteria, but lawyers with the Pacific Legal Foundation say the school is simply using other proxies to factor for race.

Thomas Jefferson High School is an elite tech school that used to admit students based on the merit of applications, but they recently made a change to accept the top 1.5% of students applying from each middle school in the feeder pattern, but not more than 1.5%. As the legal argument goes, they’re using geography as a proxy for race.

In the past, one middle school might let around 80 kids in, but now they’re capped at much fewer.

At Thomas Jefferson, the school changed its admission policies in 2020. After the policy changed, the school saw a drastic reduction in Asian students – from 73% to 54%. Other demographic groups, including white students, saw increases in admissions – only Asians saw a reduction.  

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases regarding affirmative action from Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Those cases will likely be on deck for the upcoming term.

Affirmative action has been debated for decades at the collegiate level, and in some cases struck down, but a legal challenge like this one – at the K-12 level – is being watched as other schools across the country consider creating similar policies.

Last week, parents in San Francisco recalled three members of the city’s School Board over similar policies. In that instance, the San Francisco School Board voted to eliminate the merit-based system in favor of a lottery system to an elite high school, which was extremely unpopular with parents. At first, the changes were to accommodate pandemic restrictions. Later, the board said it would make them permanent for racial reasons. There has been some legal back and forth, but it’s an ongoing issue in San Francisco.

The Thomas Jefferson lawsuit is different from the cases before the Supreme Court, because Thomas Jefferson never specifically talks about race as part of its admissions criteria. This could open up a new avenue of legal action for parents and students.

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