Supreme Court won’t review admissions at Va.’s Thomas Jefferson HS

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The Supreme Court will not review a challenge to the admissions system for a prestigious Northern Virginia magnet school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which administrators said opened the program to a wider socioeconomic range of students but opponents claimed discriminated against Asian American applicants.

The high court’s decision Tuesday not to take the case drew a sharp dissent from two conservatives — Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas — and follows its ruling last term rejecting race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. That historic decision rolled back decades of precedent and has dramatically changed how the nation’s private and public universities select their students.

The legal battle in Virginia is between a group of parents, called the Coalition for TJ, and the Fairfax County School Board over an admissions policy designed to encourage diversity at the school without explicitly considering race. Thomas Jefferson, often ranked the best high school in the country, changed its admissions process in 2020 in part to boost racial diversity at the school, which had long enrolled single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students.

The revised process at TJ, as the school is known locally, used a more holistic review of applicants by considering what admissions experts call “race-neutral” factors, such as what neighborhood a student lives in and their socioeconomic status. The new process also removed a notoriously difficult admissions test and $100 application fee and reserved a set number of seats for students from each of Fairfax County’s middle schools. Applicants must have an unweighted grade-point average of at least 3.5 while taking higher-level courses, complete a problem-solving essay and submit a “Student Portrait Sheet.”

The first admitted class saw boosts in Black and Latino enrollment, as well as more low-income students, English-language learners and girls. The percentage of Asian American students dropped from around 70 percent to 50 percent, sparking accusations that the changes were designed to drive down Asian American enrollment.

A parent group that opposed the changes filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging that the new process was discriminatory.

As is common in court orders, the Supreme Court majority on Tuesday did not provide a reason for allowing an appeals court’s decision upholding the new policy to stand. The two dissenting justices said the lower court was wrong to uphold the policy and that they would have reviewed the case.

What the lower court “held, in essence, is that intentional racial discrimination is constitutional so long as it is not too severe. This reasoning is indefensible, and it cries out for correction,” wrote Alito, joined by Thomas.

Asra Nomani, a co-founder of the coalition and parent of a TJ student who graduated in 2021, said the court’s decision was a setback, but would not be the end of their fight.

“Today, the American Dream was dealt a blow, but we remain committed to protecting the values of merit, equality, and justice — and we will prevail for the future of our children and for the nation we love and embrace,” Nomani said in a statement.

A District Court judge initially sided with the parent group in 2022, calling the Thomas Jefferson’s new admissions process “racial balancing” and “patently unconstitutional.” Then, in May, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of the Fairfax County School Board and stating that the process did not discriminate against Asian American students — in part because a majority of admitted students still are Asian American.

Coalition for TJ, the group formed in opposition to the new system, asked the Supreme Court to intervene in August.

“Local school boards in these cases have enacted policies designed to balance the racial composition of their schools at the expense of Asian Americans,” the coalition wrote in its petition for the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Alito took issue with the 4th Circuit’s reasoning, saying it “effectively licenses official actors to discriminate against any racial group with impunity as long as that group continues to perform at a higher rate than other groups.”

He characterized public magnet high schools as “engines of social mobility” for minorities and the children of immigrants, adding that the “majority’s fallacious reasoning works a grave injustice on diligent young people who yearn to make a better future for themselves, their families, and our society.”

Similar legal challenges to admissions-based high schools have been filed around the country and have been watched as a possible next frontier of admissions challenges after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Harvard and UNC cases in June. In his dissent, Alito wrote that Thomas Jefferson’s admissions policy could become a road map for other selective schools to evade last year’s Supreme Court decision.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the Coalition for TJ, said in a statement that they will continue to fight race-based admissions in public elementary, middle and high schools, with cases underway in Boston, New York City, and Montgomery County, Md.

“The Supreme Court missed an important opportunity to end race-based discrimination in K-12 admissions,” attorney Joshua Thompson said in a statement.

The Virginia case is Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board

This is a developing story. It will be updated.

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