Oral arguments in Coalition for TJ are today. Here are 5 things you should know.

September 15, 2022 | By NICOLE W.C. YEATMAN
Thomas Jefferson Students

For Northern Virginia families hoping to send their kids to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—the top-ranked public high school in the country—today (September 16) is a big day. 

That’s when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board to determine whether Thomas Jefferson High School’s new admissions process unconstitutionally discriminates against Asian Americans. (You can listen to the livestream of oral arguments here.) 

When Pacific Legal Foundation won a victory in this case in the district court, parents and alumni were ecstatic. The school, dubbed TJ by locals, has a reputation for attracting bright young minds and challenging them with a rigorous workload that can catapult them into a rewarding career in STEM. Getting into TJ will change a child’s life—which is why the admissions process should be fair and open to all, regardless of race.  

The district court’s February ruling in our favor “reaffirms that TJ’s admissions should be based on merit,” Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin said at the time.  

But everyone’s relief was short-lived: The school board appealed the victory, and the Fourth Circuit stayed the district court’s decision until the appeals process is resolved—allowing the discriminatory admissions process to remain in place. The Supreme Court declined to step in.  

Today is PLF’s opportunity to convince the Fourth Circuit that the district court correctly concluded TJ’s new admissions process violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. 

Here are five things you should know as we go into oral arguments: 

1. Text messages between school board members reveal they were fully aware of the discriminatory effect of their admissions policy change, which replaced the colorblind admissions test with a race-conscious lottery system.  

In text messages published by The Wall Street Journal, one school board member pointed out to another that the admissions change “will whiten our schools and kick [out] Asians. How is that achieving the goal of diversity?” 

In another exchange, a school board member texted, “I mean there has been an anti-Asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol!” Another member replied: “Of course it is.” 

2. Asra Nomani, a TJ mother who co-founded the Coalition for TJ, just wrote a New York Times op-ed pleading for everyone to remember that school is about merit. 

Asra Nomani

Nomani writes: 

It was America’s public school system and its culture of meritocracy that allowed me, an immigrant girl from India who arrived at age 4 not knowing a word of English, to become a reporter for The Wall Street Journal at age 23. But now, as my high school classmates and I mark 40 years since graduation, a war on merit is raging. We can’t afford to lose this ideal. The price would be too steep for our nation’s competitive place in the world and, more important, for our nation’s kids, who thrive when they are challenged and motivated to work hard and aim high. 

Merit demands excellence and rigor. It is not, as its critics often insist, an elitist, classist or racist value. It acknowledges that all kids have talents. 

To hear more from Nomani, read PLF’s interview with her.  

3. Virginia and 15 other states filed an amicus brief supporting PLF and Coalition for TJ. Several groups filed additional amicus briefs, including the Fairfax County Parents Association, the American Civil Rights Project, Asian American Coalition for Education, and the Richmond Jewish Coalition. 

TJ admissions case

“TJ’s mission is critically important to the Commonwealth’s, and the country’s, competitiveness,” Virginia wrote in its brief. “TJ provides a highly challenging, world-class education for gifted high-school students, focusing on science, technology, and math. The students it educates are this country’s future scientists, researchers, inventors, doctors, and engineers.” 

The Asian American Coalition for Education pointed out that “[d]eficiencies in K-8 education cannot be addressed by racially balancing TJ and other academic high schools. All that would accomplish is to destroy these schools’ academic natures, depriving Americans of all ethnicities of a valuable public resource. Then only the wealthy would have access to superior education.”  

TJ “is a school specifically designated for gifted education,” the Fairfax County Parents Association reminded the court in its brief. “[N]ot every student interested in STEM is gifted in a way that necessitates a different curriculum for them to achieve their full potential.” 

 4. Governor Glenn Youngkin recently appointed Coalition for TJ co-founder Suparna Dutta to the Virginia Board of Education. 

Suparna-Dutta

Dutta explained to reporters that the admissions change at TJ pushed her and other parents to become more involved in the public education system. “It was so unfair for the students to see that their hard work wouldn’t count—that merit wouldn’t count,” she said. “That there were other forces at play here by adults to discount them, devalue merit, and that’s what infuriated parents to see that would happen in America. So that’s why people like me who didn’t have an activist bone in their body stepped up and said, you know, this has got to stop, let’s just let kids succeed.” 

5. PLF has produced a short documentary about the case that includes interviews with Asra Nomani and other parents, taking viewers inside the emotional experience of fighting for children’s education.

The documentary will be released in October. For updates, follow us on Twitter or Facebook