Federal Judge Rules Virginia High School’s Admissions Changes Are Discriminatory, ‘Infected with Talk of Racial Balancing’

FILE - Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Alexandria, Va., where her organization filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County's school board, alleging discrimination against Asian Americans over its revised admissions process for the elite Thomas Jefferson …
AP Photo/Matthew Barakat, File

A federal judge Friday ruled that admissions changes at the nation’s top public high school, which were put in place to pursue “equity,” are discriminatory against Asian Americans.

“The undisputed evidence demonstrates precisely how the Board’s actions caused, and will continue to cause, a substantial racial impact,” U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton wrote in his decision. “The Board instituted a system that does not treat all applicants to TJ [Thomas Jefferson High School] equally.”

“Placing the Board’s actions in a historical context leaves little doubt that its decision to overhaul the TJ admissions process was racially motivated,” Hilton, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, continued.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), an elite Governor’s School in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system, is a specialized Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) high school that requires an entrance exam. Due to objective testing, it has consistently maintained a high percentage of Asian students (nearly 72 percent in the 2020-21 school year), which prompted the far-left FCPS school board to institute race-based considerations for entry.

In response, Coalition for TJ, a coalition of parents, students, and alumni represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), filed a civil rights lawsuit against FCPS.

“Coalition for TJ is thrilled by Judge Claude Hilton’s clear renunciation of racism and discrimination and his powerful defense of equality,” Asra Nomani, Co-Founder of Coalition for TJ and alumni-parent of a student in the class of 2021, told Breitbart News. “For almost two years, our courageous families have battled an incalcitrant and racist school board and superintendent intent on using ‘social justice,’ ‘equity’ and ‘anti-racism’ to perpetuate racism and discrimination against Asian students and families. Today’s decision is a victory for all students, all families and the United States of America. It is a victory for equality under the law, merit education and the American Dream. We are so grateful to the team at Pacific Legal Foundation for being relentless defenders of justice. May all parents, citizens and students have the moral courage and willpower of our families to stand up for their values and beliefs, as our amazing families have done.”

Hilton’s opinion laid out the changes in the TJ admissions system from one based on academic metrics to one based on other considerations. The process no longer required standardized test-taking but did take into account “Experience Factors” including “an applicant’s (a) attendance at a middle school deemed historically underrepresented at TJ; (b) eligibility for free and reduced price meals; (c) status as an English language learner; and (d) status as a special education student.”

Hilton then went on to note that Virginia’s then-Democrat-run General Assembly and Governor’s Mansion required “diversity goals” for the Commonwealth’s Governor’s Schools. In response to both the protests and riots following the death of George Floyd, as well as TJ’s admissions report showing black students as a very small portion of the 2024 graduating class, TJ Principal Ann Bonitatibus wrote that “recent events of our nation with black citizens facing death and continued injustices remind us that we each have a responsibility to our community to speak up and take actions that counter racism and discrimination in our society.”

To Bonitatibus, TJ “did not reflect the racial composition in FCPS,” and if it did, the school “would enroll 180 black and 460 Hispanic students, filling nearly 22 classrooms.”

Hilton noted in the decision that the “county-wide racial makeup of FCPS students is: 36.8% white, 27.1% Hispanic, 19.8% Asian American, and 10% black.”

The judge focused on the degree to which FCPS board members focused purely on race as a motivator for making their decisions, as opposed to something else that may have disparate impact but would be applied neutrally.

“Board member communications show a consensus that, in their view, the racial makeup of TJ was problematic and should be changed,” he began. “The discussion of TJ admissions changes was infected with talk of racial balancing from its inception.”

James Pan, the parent of an eighth-grader, speaks about a lawsuit he and other parents filed against the Fairfax County School Board over its plans to change the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite public schools regularly ranked as one of the nation's best, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020 in Fairfax, Va. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)

James Pan, the parent of an eighth-grader, speaks about a lawsuit he and other parents filed against the Fairfax County School Board over its plans to change the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite public schools regularly ranked as one of the nation’s best, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Fairfax, VA. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)

“Throughout this process, Board members and high-level FCPS officials expressed their desire to remake TJ admissions because they were dissatisfied with the racial composition of the school,” Hilton explained. “A means to accomplish their goal of achieving racial balance was to decrease enrollment of the only racial group ‘overrepresented’ at TJ — Asian Americans. The Board employed proxies that disproportionately burden Asian-American students.”

“The Board members need not harbor racial animus to act with discriminatory intent,” but, Hilton ruled quoting case law, strict scrutiny applies when government actions “are motivated by a racial purpose or object” and “the record demonstrates that the Board harbored such a purpose.”

Indeed, the superintendent and several school board members were active and outspoken in their race-based machinations.

“[School Board member Rachna] Sizemore Heizer wrote to [Superintendent] Brabrand to suggest that he frame his plan as ‘increasing diversity through redefining merit,'” Hilton explained. “[School Board member Abrar] Omeish used more aggressive language, writing that she planned to ‘support the proposal towards greater equity, to be clearly distinguished from equality.'”

“Far from a compelling interest, racial balancing for its own sake is ‘patently unconstitutional,'” Hilton said. “The Board cannot transform racial balancing into a compelling interest ‘simply by relabeling it racial diversity.'”

The evidence shows the process was rushed, not transparent, and more concerned with simply doing something to alter the racial balance at TJ than with public engagement,” the judge concluded. “The proper remedy for a legal provision enacted with discriminatory intent is invalidation.”

“This is a monumental win for parents and students here in Fairfax County, but also for equal treatment in education across the country,” PLF attorney Erin Wilcox said. “We hope this ruling sends the message that government cannot choose who receives the opportunity to attend public schools based on race or ethnicity.”

“Parents Defending Education is thrilled by Judge Claude Hilton’s vindication of the courageous parents in Coalition for TJ who stood up against racism and injustice,” Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neily said. “Their hard work, which began in August 2020, served as an inspiration for the thousands of parents we have across the country who are challenging school boards that are failing to govern with fairness and transparency. This, like the recall of school board members in San Francisco, is a victory for parents nationwide.”

The case is Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board, No. 1:21cv296, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

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