The Hill: Parents sue to stop discriminatory admissions at top-ranked high school

March 10, 2021 | By ERIN WILCOX
TJ Hero

It all started with an email.

Last summer, as George Floyd’s death rocked the nation and COVID-19 kept many Fairfax County Public Schools students at home, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology principal Dr. Ann Bonitatibus sent an email urging students and parents to “think of the privileges you hold that others may not.”

Fairfax County, Va., is certainly privileged, with a median household income of nearly $54,000 and a population in which more than 60 percent hold a college degree or higher. It’s also home to Thomas Jefferson High School, better known as TJ. The No. 1-ranked public high school in the nation, TJ attracts the most gifted STEM students in northern Virginia.

But it was another line in Dr. Bonitatibus’s call to action that set off alarm bells for many parents: That while TJ is a “rich tapestry of heritages … we do not reflect the racial composition in [Fairfax County Public Schools].”

Language such as “reflect the racial composition” is code for racial balancing — the idea that schools should have certain quotas for each race. At the highly competitive TJ, admission to the school has depended in large part on achieving a high score on a race-blind admissions test. The resulting student body is currently 79 percent non-white and 21 percent white, with the most recent freshman class composed of 73 percent Asian American students. Though lumped together as “Asian” for demographic reports, TJ’s Asian American students represent families from at least 30 countries with unique languages and traditions. A rich tapestry, indeed.

Dr. Bonitatibus’s comments were parents’ first inkling that school officials might attempt to racially balance TJ by decreasing the number of Asian American students chosen for admission.

Their concern turned out to be justified. By December, the school board had overhauled the TJ admissions process, canceling the admissions test a month before a legion of eighth graders were expecting to take it and manipulating the rest of the process to help achieve the desired result: fewer Asian American students.

Under the new admissions process, TJ’s Asian American student enrollment — and only Asian American student enrollment — is projected to decrease by a whopping 42 percent. Not only is this racial balancing unfair to the hundreds of students who work for a chance to attend TJ, it’s also unconstitutional.

The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal treatment before the law as individuals, not as mere representatives of a racial group. By manipulating the TJ admissions process so that a student’s skin color matters more than his or her abilities, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) violates their right to equal protection under the law.

Parents aren’t taking this lying down.

The Coalition for TJ is a group of Fairfax-area parents opposed to racial balancing in public school admission. The coalition’s membership is multi-racial, multi-ethnic and from diverse backgrounds. Many coalition members are parents of current eighth-graders, whose work to earn good grades, take higher-level math classes and prepare for the TJ admissions test became worthless when the school board eliminated the TJ test last fall. Some coalition members have children already enrolled in or graduated from TJ but they couldn’t stand by quietly watching discrimination against Asian American students. Many coalition members are immigrants who know firsthand what it’s like to live in a country that does not value individual rights, and who have worked to achieve their American Dream.

None of the Coalition for TJ members wants FCPS to teach their children that skin color matters more than hard work.

Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, the Coalition for TJ filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Fairfax County School Board’s changes to the TJ admissions process. According to the coalition’s complaint, the school board and FCPS officials made no secret of their intention to limit Asian American student enrollment at TJ through changes to the admissions process. This racial balancing is unconstitutional.

The Equal Protection Clause is a promise that our government, including public schools, will not discriminate based on the racial group we are born into. Each student who applies to TJ is much, much more than his or her race. All are unique individuals with their own talents, needs and abilities, none of which can be judged by their race.

The Coalition for TJ hasn’t given up on the promise of equality under the law. These parents teach their children that every person should be evaluated on their abilities, not skin color. It’s time for Fairfax County Public Schools to learn this lesson, too.

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on March 10, 2021.