Conservatives open new front in elite school admissions wars

When school started last fall at one of the nation’s most competitive and prestigious public high schools, the incoming freshman class looked different by design.

Compared to previous classes at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., there were more black and Hispanic students, as well as white students — but fewer Asian students.

In effect, the standardized tests that were once the key to admission have been eliminated. The best students were admitted from a representative sample of schools, and weight was given to the poorest students, as well as students learning the English language.

Now, those policies are at the center of a federal lawsuit brought by an organization called the Coalition for TJ, with help from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that accepts admissions to public high schools and has filed similar lawsuits in New York. York and Montgomery County, Maryland.

The organization argues that the school‘s new admissions process was designed to racially balance the student body at the expense of Asian American students. The group is pushing for the school’s new process to be scrapped, saying it discriminates along racial and ethnic lines.

If the lawsuit wins, it could block future efforts by elite public high schools trying to diversify their students by race and income.

Wen Fa, senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, said changes to admissions criteria for the Class of 2025 were just proxies for race.

“They’ve completely revamped the admissions system, and they’re doing it secretly using proxies,” Fa said.

Julie Moult, a spokesperson for the school system, disagreed, saying the new admissions system was “merit-based and blind to race.” The race and ethnicity of the candidates, drawn largely from the top 1.5% of each school, is unknown to the review board, she said.

The decision, which could be made soon, will come at an already volatile time for elite schools considering how to admit students. The Supreme Court must hear arguments on whether Harvard and the University of North Carolina can consider race as an admissions factor.

The Virginia case, however, could break new ground. Unlike Harvard or the University of North Carolina, Thomas Jefferson never mentions race as an admission criterion; instead it uses other measures – such as postcodes – to boost diversity.

Justin Driver, a Yale law professor, called the trial aggressive because the plaintiffs were adopting a practice that no current Supreme Court justice had ever said was a problem — the use of what administrators schools say they are neutral criteria for selecting students.

The problem, he said, is “the next battle following a Supreme Court ruling that would eliminate affirmative action.”

“These cases,” he continued, “are the next wave in this effort.”

Driver, author of a 2018 book on the Supreme Court and education, said Thomas Jefferson’s new policy shares similarities with the University of Texas plan that guarantees admission to the best students from each of the state high schools.

But the Pacific Legal Foundation and some parents say the new admissions criteria are hardly racially neutral and deliberately target Asian American students, many of whom do well on admissions tests.

Hemang Nagar, an Indian immigrant whose son was admitted to Thomas Jefferson in the Class of 2025 despite the changes, is among the parents behind the lawsuit.

“It had nothing to do with the murder of George Floyd, but this incident was used to shove that down everyone’s throats,” Nagar said. “I think the case will go to the Supreme Court and I think we will win.”

Asian Americans were the only racial group to see their numbers drop under the new admissions system, from 73% to 54%.

The percentage of black students rose from 2% to 7%. Hispanic students jumped from 3% to 11%. White students went from 18% to 22%.

In the Fairfax County school system as a whole, approximately 37% of students are white, 27% are Hispanic, 20% are Asian, and 10% are black.

Damilola Awofisayo, a senior who leads Thomas Jefferson’s Black Student Union, said she noticed an immediate change when the new class arrived.

“We have so much commitment and community,” said Damilola, 18, describing how the previously scarce club membership had increased. Its meetings now include lively discussions of current affairs through an African-American lens.

In her freshman year, she encountered students who seemed ignorant of black people and made inappropriate comments. “My freshman year, I got comments that ‘you’re only in school because of affirmative action,'” Damilola said, even though she passed the same rigorous test as everyone else. .

While she reserves judgment on the new admissions system, she said parts of it — including the geographic diversity requirement — were improvements. “It just makes things fairer overall for everyone,” said Damilola, who is of Nigerian descent.

The Pacific Legal Foundation was founded in 1973, during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as Governor of California, by his supporters who envisioned a conservative version of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Since then, the Sacramento-based organization has grown significantly. Its most recent annual budget was $17 million. Critics cite the group’s well-heeled donors and partners, including the Kochs, the Atlas Network and the Uihlein family, who operate the large commercial product supply company Uline, as evidence that it is heavily influenced by commercial interests. The foundation says its support comes from 6,400 donors.

The foundation has a successful track record: 14 victories in cases before the Supreme Court. He is also known as a prolific filer of “friends of the court” memoirs, including in support of Students for Fair Admissions, the Virginia-based group waging a legal battle against affirmative action at Harvard and North Carolina.

Driver, the Yale professor, noted that these cases have pitted various ethnic groups against each other in divisive ways. At Thomas Jefferson, the class selection controversy goes back decades, according to 1998 graduate Jorge Torrico.

When he attended, Torrico was an undocumented Bolivian immigrant who gained admission through a foundation program that walked students through application and testing. When he arrived, he said, “classmates immediately accused me of entering through affirmative action.” He is now part of a group dedicated to mentoring students to increase diversity at Thomas Jefferson.

In the early 2000s, the school ended an affirmative action program based on legal advice, according to Daniel A. Domenech, the former superintendent of schools for Fairfax County.

His efforts to push through an alternative plan met with political backlash, he said. And when he left the job in 2004, he felt a sense of frustration over that failure.

“It’s a big issue in education right now,” said Domenech, currently executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “The whole issue of fairness and lack of fairness in our school systems is glaring.”

The controversy over Thomas Jefferson’s racial makeup erupted again in June 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. School Principal Ann Bonitatibus wrote an introspective message to families. Why, she asked, did the school of about 1,800 students include only 32 black students and 47 Hispanic students?

It was a call to action during a national time of racial awareness, she said, urging families: “Please think about the privileges you hold that others cannot. not.”

Spurred by questions from the state Department of Education about racial equity, as well as concerns from other Democratic politicians, Thomas Jefferson revised his admissions policies.

Documents later released in court revealed that a school board member expressed concern in a text that the new admissions policy had “an anti-Asian feel”.

Perhaps signaling the future of the lawsuit, presiding U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton expressed skepticism about the school system’s assertion that its revised admissions policy is gender-neutral. racial.

“Everyone knows the policy is not racially neutral and is designed to affect the racial makeup of the school,” said Hilton, a Reagan appointee. “You can say all kinds of good things while you do other things.”

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