A federal judge approved an anti-discrimination lawsuit against one of the top high schools in the U.S. on Friday, knocking the school’s claim that its admissions practices are race-neutral.
In March, a parents’ group composed mostly of Asian Americans filed a lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), located in northern Virginia and ranked best U.S. public high school last month by U.S. News and World Report. The parents’ group, called the Coalition for TJ, alleged that the high school’s new admissions policy disadvantages Asian American students against other applicants.
The Fairfax County School Board overhauled admissions procedures at TJ last year following its commitment to “anti-racism” in the wake of the numerous protests and riots over the death of George Floyd. As The Associated Press reports:
The new system now allocates slots at the highly competitive school in a system that distributes the vast majority of slots to the top 1.5 percent of students at each of the county’s middle schools.
School board members have said that increasing geographic diversity at the school should improve racial diversity. Other items that were seen as a barrier to Black and Hispanic families, including an application fee, have been eliminated.
Attorney Stuart Raphael, who is representing the Fairfax County School Board in the suit, moved Friday to have the lawsuit dismissed. Raphael argued that the school’s new admissions process is explicitly race-neutral and that admissions personnel do not know the races of applicants.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled against Raphael. “Everybody knows the policy is not race neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” Hilton said, according to the AP. “You can say all sorts of beautiful things while you’re doing others.”
In a blow to the Coalition for TJ, Hilton declined to place an injunction against the school to stop admissions for the 2021-22 school year, which is moving forward under the new system. Hilton said that the admissions process for the year is almost done and an injunction would be too disruptive.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the Coalition for TJ in the lawsuit, argues that Asian American middle schoolers who attend one of three middle schools that traditionally send the most students to TJ will be disadvantaged.
“[T]he new admissions policy also caps the number of students allowed from each of the district’s 23 middle schools. The three middle schools that typically account for most of TJ’s admissions have higher numbers of Asian-American students than most other middle schools,” PLF states. “As a result, TJ’s Class of 2025 is projected to have 42 percent fewer Asian-American students, while no other racial group will lose seats.”
In a statement given after the lawsuit was filed in March, a spokeswoman for the school board called TJ’s previous admissions exam one of the “historical barriers” blocking students “from culturally and ethnically diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.”