The battle of the admissions process at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as TJ, has taken a new turn. The Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) filed an appeal on March 14 against a ruling by the U.S. District Court that invalidated its current admissions process for the nationally ranked high school.
U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton sided with Coalition for TJ, a parent’s group, in February in Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board, saying that the process was discriminatory against Asian Americans and constitutes an illegal act of racial balancing. Hilton ordered that the process stop immediately and denied a motion for the process to stay for this admissions cycle, putting Class of 2026 applications — who are about halfway through the process, as students typically learn of their admission into TJ in June — in limbo.
Here’s a timeline for what you need to know about the case — and what it could mean for Virginia’s Governor’s Schools.
June: Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) releases demographic information about TJ’s Class of 2024 accepted students. Its total number of Black students was fewer than reporting levels, prompting community backlash. In the summer following George Floyd’s death and name changes within the school system — Robert E. Lee High School was renamed to John R. Lewis High School — community members, like the TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG), call on FCPS to reflect upon TJ’s admissions process.
FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand proposes overhauling the TJ admissions process following complaints of a lack of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students at the school. In this proposal, the $100 application fee, standardized test, and teacher recommendations were omitted in favor of a merit lottery.
August: Coalition for TJ forms in direct response to TJ’s admissions change, saying that the new system will be discriminatory against Asian Americans. Parents and alumni argue that a merit lottery will actually decrease both diversity and the quality of the school.
October: The school board votes to eliminate both the standardized admissions test and $100 application fee, and calls on Brabrand to develop an admissions process that would create a more diverse student body reflective of Fairfax County.
Coalition for TJ and others protest the change, while TJAAG continues to call on the school board to create a more equitable admissions process.
November: Seventeen families file in the Fairfax County Circuit Court against FCPS following the dropped admissions test and application fee, saying that the decision to remove the test goes against a Virginia law that regulates Governor’s Schools.
December: FCSB votes to adopt a “holistic review” admissions process at TJ. The new process, which expands the freshman class from 480 to 550, gives each public middle school a minimum number of seats equal to the top 1.5 percent of its eighth grade class. Students must meet certain academic criteria, such as maintaining an unweighted GPA of at least 3.5, and doing so while taking Algebra I or a higher-level math class. Qualified students are then invited to complete a problem-solving essay and “Student Portrait Sheet.” Reviewers then take into account a student’s “experience factors,” such as whether students are low-income or come from households that do not speak English.
March 10, 2021: Coalition for TJ files a complaint in the Eastern District Court of Virginia through Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit legal organization. The suit becomes the second against the school board regarding TJ’s admissions process — this time targeting the entire overhaul of the process, not just the removal of the admissions test.
“The Coalition alleges that these changes were specifically intended to reduce the percentage of Asian American students who enroll in TJ, with the ultimate goal of racially balancing the school according to the racial demographics of Fairfax County,” the complaint says.
Between March and June 2021, FCSB and Coalition for TJ both file various items in court, including motions to dismiss the case and oppositions to this dismissal. In May 2021, Hilton says that the case may move forward in court but denies a request for an injunction that would have stopped the new admissions policy for the Class of 2025.
June 23, 2021: FCPS releases demographic data of students offered admission into TJ for the following fall. From the Class of 2024 to Class of 2025, the percentage of Black students increased from 1 percent to 7 percent; Hispanic representation increased from 3 percent to 11 percent; and the percentage of white students increased from 18 percent to 22 percent; Asian-American representation decreased from 73 percent to 54 percent.
TJAAG says this statistic “paints a poor and misleading picture of what actually happened with Asian applicants and accepted students,” noting that the number of Asian students accepted that year stayed within the traditional margin; TJAAG says the increased total of students in the class along with the same acceptance rate is what caused this seeming disparity.
Between June 2021 and the time the case was heard in federal court, both parties send more items to the court…
January 10, 2022: Del. Glenn Davis introduces a bill that seeks to ban demographics from Governor’s School admissions. FCPS Division Counsel John Foster says that those reviewing admissions at TJ do not have students’ names, let alone demographic information, when evaluating applications.
January 19, 2022: Hilton decides that the suit Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board will not go to trial, saying that no material facts remained to be decided and that he can base his decision on existing case law.
February 25, 2022: Hilton rules in favor of Coalition for TJ. Hilton issues the ruling after hearing arguments on motions for summary judgment, which is a judgment entered for one party against another without a full trial.
Hilton says the admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans and constitutes an illegal act of racial balancing. He orders that the process cease immediately, including for the current round of applicants.
FCPS believes the ruling is not supported by law and says it will consider asking a federal appeals court to review the decision.
“The current freshman class selected under the new process has a majority of students who are Asian-American, but the plaintiffs have contended, without evidence, the School Board intended to discriminate against Asian-American students,” says Foster.
“The new process is blind to race, gender and national origin, and gives the most talented students from every middle school a seat at TJ. We believe that a trial would have shown that the new process meets all legal requirements,” he says, noting the plan “was based on successful race-neutral policies in Texas and Florida that increased statewide geographic representation in public universities and that were approved by the federal courts.”
March 9, 2022: The Virginia General Assembly passes the legislation introduced by Davis that bans racial and other forms of discrimination during the admissions process in the state’s Governor’s Schools. The bill will now head to Gov. Glenn Youngkin to sign. Youngkin has an action deadline of April 11.
March 11, 2022: Counsel for FCSB files a motion to stay, so that the current admissions process follows through as planned to prevent the upheaval of students who are in the process.
“The district court’s final judgment and injunctive order in this case forbids the Fairfax County School Board (Board) from using its current admissions policy to decide which students will receive offers to attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) for the upcoming academic year—decisions that must be made in a matter of weeks. That ruling will sow chaos unless it is stayed,” the motion says.
Hilton denies the motion.
March 14, 2022: FCSB files an appeal to the district court’s decision. The case will head to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Legal experts are divided on how the 4th Circuit could rule, with some saying it could be hard to prove that the school board intentionally drove down the Asian-American representation at TJ in its admissions process.
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