Restoring equality before the law — What the TJ victory means for education

March 02, 2022 | By BRITTANY HUNTER

In a ground-breaking decision, federal judge Claude Hilton ruled last Friday that Fairfax County school officials violated the law by changing admissions requirements at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), the nation’s top public school.

In 2020, administrators decided to change the school’s admissions policy from a merit-based assessment to a more subjective “holistic” approach that considered applicants based on criteria other than individual talent and achievement.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd and subsequent social justice protests, the school board rushed to change what it saw as a serious racial imbalance at TJ. Never mind the fact that TJ’s student body was already incredibly diverse, with over 80% of students identifying as a minority.

In the school board’s view, the real problem was that TJ had too many Asian-American students. Under the guise of racial equality, the new policy sought to reduce the number of Asian-American students admitted to the school, as the evidence showed.

As a public school, TJ is not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity. By engineering the admissions process to racially balance the student body, the school board violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equality before the law (and past Supreme Court precedent).

Concerned TJ parents, alumni, and students sprang into action and formed Coalition for TJ. Pacific Legal Foundation represented the group in a legal challenge to the new discriminatory policies.

Many of TJ’s Asian-American students—which is already a broad term that lumps individuals from dozens of different countries into one racial group—are children of immigrants. Their parents left their families and countries behind and made great sacrifices to give their children a better life. They believe that through hard work and dedication to their studies, sons and daughters will have a shot at a quality education that will allow them to fulfill their own American Dream.

But the students who worked hard and prepped for TJ for years had this opportunity deliberately taken from them in favor of the school board’s preferred racial mix—which downplayed the desires of Asian-American students.

During public testimony, a retired Rachel Carson Middle School teacher testified that Asian-American parents are “ravenous” in preparing their children for TJ, going so far as to imply that they break immigration laws to enter the country in order to enroll their children in TJ.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand stated that Asian-Americans were “over-represented” at TJ, and the school’s own principal repeatedly complained that TJ’s majority Asian-American student demographics weren’t like the rest of the school district.

In the first year of its implementation, the new policy achieved exactly what it set out to do. The percentage of Asian-American students in the freshman class dropped from 73% to 54%, despite the fact that TJ admitted almost 100 more students.

As PLF attorney Erin Wilcox and co-founder of Coalition for TJ Azra Q. Nomani explained:

“The number of Asian-American students isn’t dropping because they’re less qualified; it’s dropping because the school has rejiggered the process to make race a factor in the decisions.”

Thanks to Judge Hilton’s ruling, this great injustice will not be allowed to continue in the future.

The outcome of the TJ case is huge, not only for the students who will now be given a truly equal opportunity at acceptance, but also for the broader fight for equal protection in education.

Across the country, school districts have been steadily moving away from merit-based programs and admissions policies, focusing instead on racial balancing.

In Hartford, Connecticut, magnet schools mandated a quota of students admitted to a maximum of 75% black and Hispanic and a minimum of 25% white or Asian-American.

The plan to racially engineer the student body backfired. Some schools in the area didn’t have the number of white or Asian-American kids needed to fill the 25% quota. As a result, seats were left empty and black families missed out on their chance at a better education.

PLF helped these parents and students successfully fight back against these unconstitutional quotas.

In New York City, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and Education Chancellor Richard Carranza proposed eliminating entrance exams in Specialized High Schools like Stuyvesant High School and The Bronx High School of Science in order to reduce the Asian-American population at these schools and achieve a different racial balance.

As at TJ, the change was a direct attempt to limit the number of Asian-American (and white) students who could access these specialized schools.

Pacific Legal Foundation represented the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY), the Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School Parent Teacher Organization, and the Asian American Coalition for Education in challenging these changes. That challenge remains pending.

It’s not just admissions policies that are being jeopardized by these policies.

In New York City, the gifted and talented programs that have offered bright students an opportunity to reach their full potential for over a century are being abolished on the grounds that they promote racial segregation among students.

There is nothing wrong with offering students from diverse backgrounds better access to a quality education. But how we get there is important.

In his ruling in the TJ case, Judge Hilton mentioned race-neutral options that could have been pursued instead. He wrote:

“ …increasing the size of TJ or providing free test prep, could have been implemented before the Board defaulted to a system that treats applicants unequally in hopes of engineering a particular racial outcome.”

The answer is providing students with equal opportunities instead of promising equal outcomes. This strategy not only promises a truly level playing field, but it’s also the only way to protect the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equality before the law.

The TJ win is a huge sign of the future of equality before the law in public schools.

The district court’s order forbids the school board from continuing to use its discriminatory admissions policy. This means they will need to figure out a new admissions policy going forward, the details of which remain to be seen. The school board has 30 days from the date of the judge’s decision to file an appeal, if they choose to keep fighting.

There is still a lot of work to be done, but thanks to brave individuals like Coalition for TJ, equal protection in education is headed in the right direction.

Together, we are paving the way for a future when, as Martin Luther King Jr. expressed, children are “judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

As Coalition for TJ co-founder Asra Nomani wrote of the TJ ruling in an emotional and heartfelt tweet, “The American Dream won.”