RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A federal appeals court ruling issued Tuesday allows the nation's top-ranked high school to continue an admissions policy that some parents say discriminates against Asian American students.
Parents fighting Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology's policy “cannot establish that the [school] board adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent," U.S. Circuit Judge Robert B. King wrote in the Fourth Circuit's majority opinion. "Moreover, we are satisfied that the policy passes constitutional muster under a rational basis standard of review.”
Thomas Jefferson, located in Alexandria, Virginia, tops the U.S. News and World Report list of high-performing public high schools. The rigor of its curriculum – and a competitive admissions process – draws in academic overachievers and their parents.
But the student body has lacked diversity. As of 2019, Asian American students made up roughly 71% of the enrollment, according to the school system. By contrast, in Fairfax County, where the school is located, 19% of residents are Asian American.
The court challenge centers around a policy adopted in late 2020 eliminating standardized tests, some of which have been discontinued by publishers, according to a statement from the school board. The policy "maintained the rigorous academic standards that historically characterized TJ’s admissions process," the statement added.
The Coalition for TJ, a group of parents fighting the policy, sued in federal court in an attempt to enforce the 14th Amendment, which provides all citizens with equal protection under the laws. Backed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which bills itself as a nonprofit defending Americans from government overreach, the group prevailed in district court, leading the Fairfax County School Board to appeal to the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit.
In Tuesday's 2-1 ruling, the majority overturned the lower court's decision.
“The coalition’s contention that the board’s aim to expand access to TJ and to enhance the overall diversity of TJ’s student population constitutes per se intentional racial discrimination against Asian American students simply runs counter to common sense,” wrote King, a Bill Clinton appointee.
King was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Toby J. Heytens, an appointee of President Joe Biden.
U.S. Circuit Judge Allison Jones Rushing, a Donald Trump appointee, dissented and wrote that "racial balancing offends the equal protection clause."
“It is ‘patently unconstitutional’ for a public school to undertake to achieve within its student body some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of its race or ethnic origin," Rushing wrote.
John Foster, division counsel for the Fairfax County School Board, applauded the majority's ruling.
“The court reached the correct decision, and we firmly believe this admission plan is fair and gives qualified applicants at every middle school a fair chance of a seat at TJ. We look forward to offering seats to a new group of remarkable and incredibly well-qualified young scholars in the years to come,” Foster said.
The Pacific Legal Foundation quickly announced that within 90 days, it plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse Tuesday's decision.
"We are disappointed by today’s ruling, but we are not discouraged,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox said in a statement. “Discrimination against students based on their race is wrong and violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to end this illegal practice once and for all.”
A spokesman for the group said in an email that a Supreme Court victory would apply to all K-12 schools.
In a similar case in state court, a judge in Fairfax County denied the parents’ request for an injunction to halt the policy in 2021.
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