Thomas Jefferson High School becomes an arena for the battle between parents and policy

January 24, 2022 | By JOSEPH KAST , ERIN WILCOX

**This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Pacific Legal Foundation’s quarterly magazine, Sword&Scales**

 

The large auditorium was mostly empty when the Fairfax County School Board held its public hearing in May. Schools had been closed for much of the school year and Fairfax’s indoor mask mandate was still in effect. Seven board members sat six feet apart at a thin crescent table.

Standing opposite them was a mother named Asra Q. Nomani, whose son was a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Asra was wearing her mask, but it could not hide her frustration.

“The principal at our high school told us that our mostly minority students and parents had to check their privileges,” Asra, an Indian immigrant, told the board. Then she started to point to board members and call them out by name: “You”—she pointed to a woman—“told us that we were toxic.” Another woman, Asra said, had suggested that families of Thomas Jefferson students were racist. And, most importantly: “Every single one of you voted to remove the merit-based, race-blind admissions test.”

Meanwhile, she said, “Our students were told that if they do salsa dancing it amounts to cultural appropriation, and that they needed to check their racism. And that is our mostly minority, mostly Asian students.”

She was just getting started on her long list of complaints when she was brusquely cut off: “Your time is up ma’am! Your time is EXPIRED. Next speaker.”

The anger in the chair’s voice betrayed the real issue. Asra wasn’t merely running long on her allotted three minutes. She was revealing controversial school board actions many parents weren’t aware of, and the viral clip that emerged would set off a national movement.

Asra got in one last shot as the chair belittled her. “Yes, you continue to shut us down, because that’s what you love to do.”

Parents like Asra Nomani are treated like criminals when they push back against activist school boards. In September, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Biden suggesting such parents should be considered domestic terrorists under federal law.

But for Asra, what’s at stake is too important to keep quiet.

An Indian immigrant who came to the U.S. when she was four years old, Asra is a self-described patriot. Her family immigrated here because the United States expressly promises to treat its citizens as individuals, not as groups. Her transition from sprawling Mumbai (population 12,500,000) to tiny Morgantown, West Virginia (population 30,000) could not have been easy, especially as a young Muslim.

But Asra is an indomitable spirit, and when she fights, she fights to win. She eventually earned a master’s degree in international studies from American University and went on to become a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, a  professor at Georgetown University, and the author of two books. At Georgetown she was co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, Asra’s friend and colleague from The Wall Street Journal who was executed by Pakistani terrorists in 2002.

Over the years Asra has appeared on television many times—including Real Time with Bill Maher—to discuss her work advocating for the rights of Muslim women. (In 2004 she drafted “The Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque.”) Up until last fall, most people would probably describe Asra as a liberal feminist Muslim, pushing for reform within her faith.

But a lot’s happened since last fall.

Asra’s son is now a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is currently ranked the #1 public high school in the country. Called TJ by Virginia locals, the school’s student body is diverse: Only about 18% of the student body is white. Until last year, getting into TJ was a straightforward process. Admittance was based on passing an extremely rigorous test. Once you pass, you’re in—and it’s free to attend. But passing the test requires an immense dedication on the part of both prospective students and parents.

“As a single mother, I have huddled over the dining room table with my son since his earliest days, helping with homework and imbuing in him my parents’ values of education and hard work,” Asra says. She encouraged her son to study hard for the TJ admissions test and recalls many nights when she went to bed long before her son, who studied late into the evening, only to be up again early the next day to continue pushing himself on his math skills.

The work paid off, and her son was accepted. Asra’s son has flourished at the school, where gifted students are able to push themselves far beyond what they could achieve in a normal math or science classroom.

“Every TJ student, like my son, worked exceptionally hard to gain a spot to TJ and maintained that rigor to achieve,” Asra says.

But the race-blind admissions process that allowed Asra’s son to flourish at TJ may be permanently retired. Despite TJ’s #1 ranking in the nation, and despite the fact that 80% of TJ’s students are from minority backgrounds, the Fairfax County School Board and superintendent decided to overhaul TJ’s admissions process in the name of equity. During a September 2020 session with the school board, Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand said TJ “should reflect the diversity of Fairfax County Public Schools, the community, and of Northern Virginia.” Instead of a race-blind admissions test, they decided students should be admitted to TJ through a complex new “merit lottery” process. Black, Hispanic, and white enrollment was projected to significantly increase under the new process—while Asian-American enrollment would be significantly cut.

It’s hard to say what precisely inspired FCPS to upend admissions standards at the best public high school in the country. But the timing of the decision coincided with a visit from Dr. Ibram Kendi, one of the country’s leading proponents of “antiracism.” On August 6, 2020, Dr. Kendi gave a one-hour antiracism lecture, via Zoom, to Fairfax County administrators, principals, and teachers.

Because Fairfax parents were not invited to the lecture, it’s hard to know exactly what Kendi discussed. But his #1 New York Times bestselling book How To Be An Antiracist provides plenty of clues. In the book, Kendi argues there is no such thing as being “not racist.”

“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist,” Kendi writes. “There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” In fact, Kendi argues, “the only way to remedy past discrimination is present discrimination.” As for standardized testing, Kendi says: “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade black minds and legally exclude black bodies.”

For his time and wisdom, FCPS paid Kendi $20,000 in taxpayer money. In parents’ money. If that isn’t enraging enough, FCPS also bought $24,000 worth of Kendi’s books, so that every kindergartener in Fairfax could have a copy of Kendi’s children’s book, Antiracist Baby. In all, Kendi earned tens of thousands of dollars for telling FCPS staff that they’re racists.

A month later, FCPS announced that they would be changing the admissions process at TJ. The test would be tossed. In its place, admissions would be determined by a “holistic process” that allows the school to take race into account. FCPS branded this as an effort to bring more diversity to TJ.

Asra, however, called it what it is: racial engineering.

“It was clear that the new standards were aimed at a particular result: dramatically reducing the number of qualified Asian-American students admitted to TJ,” Asra argued in The Washington Post. Not only were the new standards “designed to actively discriminate against Asian-American students,” she wrote, “but [they] would also end up watering down the school’s long-standing commitment to achievement through hard work and merit.”

In an email to parents and students, TJ’s principal, Dr. Ann Bonitatibus, seemed to acknowledge that the admissions changes were an attempt to balance the racial makeup of the school. She explained that while TJ is a “rich tapestry of heritages,” it does not “reflect the racial composition in [Fairfax County Public Schools].” She called on TJ parents and students to play a role in “evaluating the racial equity at our school, dismantling a long-held symbol of racism, and embracing curricula to better prepare TJ graduates for a truly diverse and culturally responsive world.”

Asra and a group of other parents, many of them immigrants, formed the Coalition for TJ in response. The Coalition represents some 5,000 parents, students, alumni, staff, and community members who want to reinstate TJ’s race-blind, merit-based admissions. Despite FCPS’ talk of diversity, equity, and the other familiar buzzwords from the antiracist movement, the families in the Coalition say the new admissions process is discriminatory. Asian-Americans are the only demographic group that has dropped at TJ under the new admissions process: from 73% last year down to 54% this year—which, of course, was the whole point.

“These families never could have imagined they would face such injustice in America,” Asra says.

Enrollments for all other racial groups went up, as desired. But that includes white students, who increased in enrollment by 43%. How that effect is uprooting “white supremacy culture” at TJ remains unclear.

There is a simple brilliance to the meritocratic admissions policy that TJ upended in favor of blatant discrimination. The test is blind. You have to work hard, study, and get good grades. There are no “legacy” admissions at TJ. You can’t bribe your child’s way in, and a family’s wealth, stature, or clout don’t play any role in who gets into TJ. Contra Kendi, there was nothing more equal or fair than how TJ’s admissions used to work.

Asian-American families don’t have to dig deep to show that the admissions change is rooted in bias against Asian students. Legislators and administrators are on the record accusing Asian-American families of cheating to pass the old test. Virginia State Delegate Mark Keam implied that Asian parents were using “unethical” means to “push their kids into” TJ when their parents are “not even going to stay in America.” A retired FCPS teacher testified at a public hearing that Asian-American parents are “ravenous” in preparing their children to get into TJ, and implied that they break immigration laws to get into the country—an insulting and baseless claim. Virginia’s education secretary compared prepping for TJ’s admissions test to using performance-enhancing drugs. One board member derisively referred to TJ students “who have been [in] test prep since second grade.” Several school board members are on the record complaining about “the culture” of the majority-Asian student body at TJ. One asserted, without evidence, that it was not a “healthy” culture.

Asra and her peers in the Coalition for TJ were ready for a fight. Changing TJ’s admissions policy for the purpose of enrolling fewer Asians is anathema to the core American principle of equality under the law—a principle that was fought for during the Civil Rights movement, and which attracted many Asian immigrants to America in the first place.

“My father saw [America] as a land of opportunity and plenty—apart from the Old World’s discrimination and unfair trade-offs,” Asra says. “He was delighted to see his grandson transcend inequities of race, nationality, and religion and succeed and thrive on his own merits.”

The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits public schools from discriminating against a group on the basis of race. So the Coalition for TJ partnered with Pacific Legal Foundation to sue the school board in federal court.

FCPS’ attorneys attempted to get the case thrown out, but the judge was not having it. “Everybody knows the policy is not race-neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton said. “You can say all sorts of beautiful things while you’re doing others.” He allowed Coalition for TJ’s case to go forward, and it is in litigation now.

That doesn’t mean Asra is done fighting. For her, the admissions change is the tip of the iceberg with what’s happening at Fairfax County Public Schools. Like many other parents across the country, Asra is upset by school curricula, texts, and policies that seem to teach children that the color of their skin is more important than their work ethic or the strength of their character.

Asra doesn’t think that worldview is going to be helpful for her son’s intellectual development, and many parents across the U.S. agree. Throughout spring and summer 2021, countless videos of parents confronting their school boards at hearings went viral. And in video after video, the reception from board members was to treat them like they’ve treated Asra—cut their mic, ignore, move on.

On September 30, the national fight between parents and school boards escalated with the National School Boards Association’s letter to President Biden, which demanded that he take action on supposed widespread “malice, violence, and threats” by parents across the country, noting that “these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism[.]” While the letter does not use the word “parents,” the target was clear—and the association later apologized, acknowledging there was “no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”

Asra was apoplectic when she found out about the letter, writing that “the association of parents to ‘domestic terrorism’ by the National School Boards Association is not only a slap in the face to sincere parents, but it is—tragically—a cruel insult to victims of terrorism around the world.”

But the real focus for Asra and other families is now the legal fight against the Fairfax County School Board, which continues, thanks to PLF’s pro bono representation. At a press conference announcing the case, TJ parents and students stood with PLF attorneys and explained what’s at stake.

“The authorities are stirring up hate against Asian-Americans,” one parent said. “TJ was painted as a school for privileged families,” another said, “despite the fact that the majority of TJ families are immigrants who came to the U.S. with very little in their hands and pockets. But the one thing in common for them was that they all worked hard.”

One PLF attorney did not mince words. “The Coalition for TJ is not going to stand for this kind of discrimination against Asian-American students,” she said, “and they are here to fight for equal protection for their children.”