Court: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Discriminated Against Asians in Admissions

Whites and Asians generally get higher grades and standardized test scores than blacks and Hispanics. Because of this disparity, colleges and universities across the country lower admissions standards for the latter groups to increase “diversity.”

Euphemistically called affirmative action, such policies benefit some students but discriminate against others. The U.S. Constitution bars racial discrimination.

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Fairfax, Virginia, recently made changes to its admissions policy that eliminated standardized tests and set aside slots to admit the top students from underrepresented middle schools. The discriminatory scheme worked. Black and Hispanic student admissions increased and Asian student admissions dropped.

A coalition of parents, students, alumni, and others filed a lawsuit (PDF – complaint) last March against the Fairfax County School Board. The Coalition alleged that TJ changed the admissions policy intentionally to reduce the proportion of Asian students.

For a racial classification to survive the strict scrutiny standard under the Constitution, the law or policy must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. The judge in this case said (PDF – opinion) the school board has the burden to demonstrate that its actions satisfy this requirement.

The precedent set in the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) allowed colleges and universities to use race as a “plus factor” in admissions as a compelling government interest that is narrowly tailored to remedy past intentional discrimination and obtain the benefits of racial diversity in higher education. In this case, “no remedial interest exists here.”

TJ’s goal to have the school reflect the demographics of the surrounding area — racial balancing — is not a compelling interest. Racial balancing for its own sake is “patently unconstitutional.”

The judge contended that even if the school board could identify a “compelling interest that might justify its racially discriminatory changes…it still must prove that the changed admissions policy was ‘necessary’ to accomplish that interest.”

The judge wrote that TJ didn’t meet its burden and ruled in the Coalition’s favor. The school district said it will appeal the decision.

From the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Coalition’s legal counsel:

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

Until last year, admission to TJ was race-blind and merit-based; requirements included a standardized test, grade-point average, completion of certain math classes, and teacher recommendations. Last year, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ board and superintendent adopted an admissions policy aimed at balancing the racial groups at TJ by eliminating the admissions test, guaranteeing seats for 1.5 percent of each middle school’s eighth grade class, and awarding bonus points for various factors such as attendance at a middle school previously underrepresented at TJ. The intended result: dramatically reducing the number of Asian-American students admitted to TJ.

Photo credit: Vicky Somma (Creative Commons) – Some rights reserved

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