Supreme Court allows Virginia Public School to maintain admissions policy for now

The court rejected a request from a parent coalition to block the program while the appeal process unfolds. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch noted their dissent and reportedly sided with the parents.

Lawyers for the school board insist the policy is “racially neutral” and aims to add more diversity to the school.

The case under review involves a decision by the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia to revise the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The school – known as “TJ” – is one of the best public schools in the country. It welcomes gifted students in science, technology, engineering, and math and is one of the few regional public schools in Virginia that offers advanced study and requires students to apply for admission.

A coalition of parents said the new policy is a “racially motivated” process that negatively impacts Asian American students and was meant to make it harder for them to be admitted. After the new policy was put in place, the percentage of Asian American students who were offered places in the school rose from 73% to 54% within a year.

A district court banned the admissions policy in February, finding it violated the equal protection rights of Asian American students. A federal appeals court, however, agreed to suspend that decision.

The parents’ coalition asked the judges to lift the stay put in place by the federal appeals court. On Monday, the court declined to do so.

Under the previous policy, admissions were based on teacher recommendations, written exams, standardized tests, and essays, among other factors. According to the board, under the prior policy, students at just eight of Fairfax County’s 26 colleges accounted for 87% of the county’s share of TJ’s admitted students in the four years to 2020. In the summer of 2020 , state officials expressed concern that the school had historically admitted very few disadvantaged students.

The board overhauled the admissions process, eliminated standardized testing, and guaranteed places at TJ for 1.5 percent of the eighth-grade class at every public college within the school’s reach. It also instituted a “holistic” assessment of students that takes into consideration “experience factors” such as socio-economic background.

The council also passed a mandate requiring the use of “only racially neutral methods that do not seek to achieve specific racial or ethnic mixing, balance, or goals.”

But Erin E. Wilcox, an attorney for the Parents’ Coalition, claimed in court papers that TJ’s admissions review process was “infected with discussions of racial balance from its inception.”

She said that in the class of 2025, the first admitted under the new admissions policy, “offers to Asian American students fell 19 percentage points — from 73% to 54% in a single year”.

“All other racial groups, including white students, increased their share of offers,” she said.

This was in part because a disproportionate number of Asian American applicants and accepted students came from a handful of Fairfax County public schools, each of which often sent well over 1.5 % of its eighth-graders at TJ.

Wilcox argued that “the guarantee left only about 100 ‘unassigned’ seats for students to compete in, regardless of college, including applicants from private schools and home schools.”

“Specifically, the question is whether a school board violates the equal protection rights of disadvantaged students when it implements selective admissions criteria in an effort to produce racial balance,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox received support from Virginia’s Attorney General, Republican Jason S. Miyares, as well as 15 other states. In a friend of the court filing, Miyares accused the board of undertaking to “redo” admissions in an effort to “achieve racial balance” under pressure from state agencies and following nationwide unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

He insisted the board had replaced a “racially and meritocratically neutral admissions policy” with one “intentionally designed to reduce enrollment of Asian-Americans.”

The school board hired powerful attorney Donald B. Verrilli, who served as solicitor general for former President Barack Obama, to persuade the High Court to stay out of the dispute and allow the appeals court ruling to remain in effect while the legal challenges unfold. Verrilli argued in court documents that the student admissions policy “does not set any racial quotas, goals or targets” and is administered in a “race-blind” manner.

“Council regulators prohibit the consideration of race in admissions decisions, and all applications are anonymized, so evaluators do not know an individual applicant’s race,” he argued. . He noted that final admissions decisions are expected this month and that overhauling the admissions policy now would be “convulsive.”

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