Supreme Court won’t hear racial discrimination challenge to TJ high school admissions

Supreme Court won’t hear racial discrimination challenge to TJ high school admissions

The Supreme Court declined to hear another case Tuesday over the role of race in school admissions, months after the conservative majority struck down affirmative action in college admissions.

The justices refused to review whether a revamped admissions policy at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), one of the nation’s top-ranked high schools, discriminates against Asian Americans.

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas publicly dissented, saying they would have taken up the case.

“The Court’s willingness to swallow the aberrant decision below is hard to understand. We should wipe the decision off the books, and because the Court refuses to do so, I must respectfully dissent,” Alito wrote.

Last term, the high court along ideological lines ruled against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, effectively barring race-conscious admissions policies at colleges nationwide.

The TJ case tested schools’ ability to encourage diversity using race-neutral criteria, and the justices’ refusal to hear the dispute leaves in place a lower ruling that upheld the admissions process.

TJ, which is located in Alexandria, for years employed a multi-round admissions process, including standardized tests, to draw a highly selective incoming class from surrounding middle schools.

Beginning in summer 2020, when George Floyd’s murder spurred worldwide protests, Fairfax County school administrators began proposing changes to the admissions scheme, in part over diversity concerns.

Ultimately, the district overhauled the process to instead evaluate students based on their GPA, written assessments and experiences.

The new scheme, among other changes, boosts applicants whose families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, removes the application fee and allocates seats for each middle school’s highest-evaluated applicants.

“We have long believed that the new admissions process is both constitutional and in the best interest of all of our students. It guarantees that all qualified students from all neighborhoods in Fairfax County have a fair shot at attending this exceptional high school,” Fairfax County School Board Chair Karl Frisch said in a statement.

Coalition for TJ, an organization comprising dozens of parents in Fairfax County, sued over the new process in March 2021, arguing the county engaged in unconstitutional racial discrimination.

A Reagan-appointed federal judge ruled for the coalition, but a three-judge panel on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed that ruling.

“What the Fourth Circuit majority held, in essence, is that intentional racial discrimination is constitutional so long as it is not too severe,” Alito wrote in his written dissent, joined by Thomas.

“This reasoning is indefensible, and it cries out for correction.”

While that appeal was pending, the Supreme Court had ruled the admissions policy could remain in effect in the meantime. Three of the court’s conservatives — Thomas, Alito and Justice Neil Gorsuch — at the time said they would’ve blocked the policy, but no justice provided explanation, as is common in emergency applications.

The coalition, represented by the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, heavily referenced the high court’s recent affirmative action decision as it appealed the TJ case to the justices.

They noted that the proportion of Asian American students admitted to TJ fell from 73 percent to 54 percent after the county adopted the new admissions program.

“[A] new species of racial discrimination has been spreading through some of our largest public school systems,” the group wrote in its petition.

“Like the discrimination this Court invalidated in SFFA, it primarily targets Asian-American students. But unlike that discrimination, it takes the form of facially race-neutral admissions criteria intentionally designed to achieve the same results as overt racial discrimination.”

The county urged the Supreme Court to let the lower ruling stand, contending the coalition misrepresented the facts of the case and insisting TJ’s admissions scheme complies with the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

“The new policy is race-neutral and race-blind,” the county, represented by Donald Verrilli, who served as U.S. solicitor general in the Obama administration, wrote in its response.

“It seeks to mitigate socioeconomic obstacles faced by students of all races and to ensure that high-performing students at all County public middle schools—not merely those attending the few ‘feeder’ schools that serve the County’s more affluent communities—have a fair shot at attending TJ.”

—Updated at 4:03 p.m.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.