No matter how you try to spin the new policy, TJ is heading in the wrong direction with its admissions criteria

August 06, 2021 | By ERIN WILCOX

In a July 2 opinion piece for The Washington Post, Asra Q. Nomani and I wrote about the purge of Asian-American students occurring at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ).

Last year, TJ, a public Governor’s School in Alexandria, Virginia, changed its admissions policy, scaling back its traditionally merit-based criteria. The new admissions procedure focuses on making the student body more diverse, rather than admitting those who have earned their place at TJ through academic excellence.

These changes come at the direct expense of Asian-American students, who have already seen their acceptance rates slashed as a result. School district officials recently announced that Asian-American students will make up 54% of the incoming freshman class this fall, down from 73%  last year.

In a feeble attempt to critique our article expressing concerns over this major decrease in Asian-American students, co-founders of Protect our Progress Diane Dresdner and Sharon Wunder defended TJ’s new policies, concluding that a nearly 20% drop in admissions offers to Asian-American students—and only Asian-American students—to Thomas Jefferson High School “does not equate to a purge of any group.”

In their response,  Dresdner and  Wunder offer no other explanation for this targeted decrease. Did Asian-American applicants somehow become significantly less qualified this year? Is it just a big coincidence?

No. Fairfax County Public Schools officials made no secret over the past year that, in their view, TJ has too many Asian-American students, an opinion that is nothing short of racist.

TJ’s Asian-American students have been the target of racist stereotyping for years. In fact, contributing to this sentiment, State Delegate Mark Keam expressed his belief, during a statewide workshop in 2020, that Asian-American parents used “unethical” means to “push their kids into” TJ. He added that the parents in question are “not even going to stay in America.”

A retired Rachel Carson Middle School teacher testified in a 2018 public hearing on a bill being debated in the Virginia Assembly 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.

Just because Asian-Americans tend to make up the majority of the student body does not mean they are somehow cheating the system. But just as was intended, the new admissions policy will result in many fewer Asian-American students when the school opens its doors for the 2021-2022 school year.

Dresdner and Wunder completely ignore this point, instead focusing on the drawbacks of standardized testing.

TJ admits some of the most talented students in Northern Virginia, regardless of their skin color, and gives them a world-class education. That is how it has become the top public school in the country. Hopeful TJ applicants work hard to earn the grades and skills needed to compete for this extraordinary school. Now, all that hard work appears to have been for nothing.

Prior to the new policies, Asian-American students made up about 72% of the student body, while white students accounted for about 18%. The remaining 10% was comprised of Hispanic and Black students, as well as those who identify as “other.”

Dresdner and Wunder argue that the school should focus on equity, adjusting policies to ensure that TJ admissions reflect the demographics of Fairfax County’s student population at large, which stood at 20% Asian-American, 38% white, 27% Hispanic, and 10% Black, according to 2018 data.

A merit-based school’s primary purpose is to offer a high-quality and rigorous education, not prop up equity agendas. The school’s student body is comprised of those who worked hard to be there, regardless of race.

This is clear-cut racial discrimination and it violates our Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. As a public high school, TJ’s new admissions policy is a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law. No public entity can use arbitrary classifications, like race, as a justification to exclude.

True “nonsense,” as Dresdner and Wunder call our claims, comes in the form of policies that support an admissions policy that treats children as racial statistics rather than individuals. Fairfax County Public Schools can and must do better.

Pacific Legal Foundation is fighting to restore equality before the law at TJ by representing the Coalition for TJ, a group comprised of concerned parents, students, and others in the TJ community, in a federal lawsuit challenging the racially discriminatory changes to the TJ admissions policy.

In May, federal district court judge Claude Hilton issued a hopeful ruling from the bench. Despite the Fairfax County School Board’s urging, Judge Hilton refused to dismiss the Coalition for TJ’s lawsuit alleging that the school board violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause when it changed the admissions policy for TJ so that fewer Asian-American students will be admitted.

“Everybody knows the policy is not race-neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” Judge Hilton said. “You can say all sorts of beautiful things while you’re doing others.”

TJ is, unfortunately, not the only academic institution coming under fire for racist admissions policies.

In the past, school districts attempted to manipulate the racial balance of their student body with express racial quotas. Federal courts routinely struck down these racially discriminatory policies, and eventually school districts got the message—though recently PLF defeated a race-based admissions policy in Hartford, Connecticut, where school officials refused to admit more than 75% Black or Hispanic students to the district’s magnet high schools.

Today, school districts are moving away from express racial quotas and instead attempting to achieve the same racially discriminatory ends through more covert means. By using proxies for race, like ZIP Code or what middle school a student attends, school districts like Fairfax County are accomplishing the same racially discriminatory results as if they’d placed an outright limit on Asian-American students.  The Coalition for TJ lawsuit, like PLF’s other lawsuits in Montgomery County, Maryland, and New York City, is fighting a against this new kind of racial discrimination, one that is quickly becoming widespread in magnet and other specialized K-12 public schools across the country.

No matter how you look at it, attempts to racially manipulate public schools put the focus squarely where it shouldn’t be: on a student’s race. TJ applicants aren’t interchangeable pawns, to be shuffled around to please school officials’ views on the “right” racial balance. They are unique, talented individuals and as such, should be judged on their individual merit alone. Anything less is a violation of their constitutional right to equal protection under the law.