Washington Examiner: My son was rejected from Thomas Jefferson High School. The Supreme Court should have heard our case


As a parent, you learn how to help your child handle rejection. It’s a dagger every time, seeing hurt and disappointment on your child’s face. But you can turn it into a “teachable moment” and tell your children that if they work hard, chase their passions, and are kind to others, they have the power to make their dreams come true.

I struggled to create a teachable moment out of my eldest son’s rejection from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

TJ, located in Fairfax County, Virginia, is one of the nation’s top-ranked public high schools. It has an arduous STEM curriculum. To get in, prospective students used to have to take an entrance exam. But in 2021, just before my son applied, the school board implemented a new admissions process to advance racial equity in the student body.

Let me tell you a bit about my eldest son. By the time he was 10 years old, he was putting together all of our furniture. He called it “Legos for adults.” He loves figuring out how things work and regularly assembles our family’s bicycles. He finished middle school in the accelerated academic program and honors geometry with an overall GPA of 4.2. He also completed the three engineering courses available to students there.

What should not matter to the Fairfax County School Board — but apparently does — is that my husband is Indian American, which makes my son Indian American.

The school board changed the admissions process at TJ because it wanted fewer Asian students at the school. And school board members got their way: the number of incoming Asian students to TJ dropped 19% between 2020 and 2021. (One school board member infamously texted another: “I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol.”)

In the new admissions process, there is no entrance exam. Students are evaluated on a 900-point scale in which GPA is only worth a maximum of 300 points. Other points are awarded for attending an underrepresented middle school and other “Experience Factors.” Students write admissions essays that have little to do with STEM or academics.

After following the new admissions process, my son was wait-listed at TJ. Then he was rejected. If his rejection had come after doing poorly on an entrance exam, I would know what to say to him. But how do you motivate your son to work harder at STEM — his passion — when his work isn’t what he’s being judged on?

It’s a hard awakening. Our family has never seen my son’s Indian ancestry as a limiting factor — as something for which he’d be stereotyped and deemed unwanted. On the contrary, like so many other American families, we carry the immigration story of my husband’s family as an inspiration.

In 1975, my in-laws migrated to the United States from Punjab, India, seeking more opportunities for their future children and grandchildren. They knew what it was like to live in a stratified society where group identity matters more than individual capability: 30 years earlier, their families had been part of the forced migration between India and Pakistan in which Muslims were pushed west and Hindus and Sikhs were pushed east.

In America, my father-in-law worked in factories while my mother-in-law cleaned houses, made rotis for restaurants, drove a bus, and later worked in a factory. They worked because they believed in the American dream — that here in the U.S., all people would be treated equally under the law and could rise or fall by their own merit.

I want my children to believe in that dream, too.

This week, the Supreme Court declined to hear the Coalition for TJ’s lawsuit challenging the school’s new admissions process as unconstitutional. I’m a member of the coalition, along with other Fairfax parents and TJ alumni worried about the school. We’re represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that argues the new admissions process violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

My sons and I are disappointed in the court’s decision to not hear our case — not so much because of my eldest son, who has settled in at our local high school, nor even because of my other two sons, who plan to apply to TJ, but because this was an opportunity for a teachable moment. Our Supreme Court declined the opportunity to show us what kind of country we are and what kind of future we are capable of building.

We will continue to fight for a future in which individual capability counts more than group identity. That’s a dream that we must protect for present and future generations of all races.

Stephanie Lundquist-Arora is a mother in Fairfax County, Virginia, an author, a member of the Coalition for TJ, and the Fairfax chapter leader of the Independent Women’s Network.

This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Examiner on February 21, 2024.