Although the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action may have sweeping effects among colleges and universities, it is unclear whether it will affect the admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), a top ranked high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. Opinions range widely from some predicting that the revised TJ admissions standards are “doomed,” while other opinions feel the current ruling is not applicable to TJ admissions, because the reforms enacted in 2020 are consistent with Supreme Court recommendations of race-neutral admissions. Fairfax County (and the nation!) awaits word on whether the Supreme Court will take up the Coalition for TJ case, despite a recent ruling in favor of the Fairfax County School Board (FCSB).
In May 2023, the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system won an expensive two-year legal battle with Coalition for TJ over the revised TJ admissions policy. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling by a lower court that had ruled that the revised TJ admissions policy was illegal “racial balancing.” The appeals court noted that the admissions policy was, in fact, race-neutral and thereby legal, which followed recommendations by previous courts regarding the use race-neutral admissions criteria.
The recent win for FCPS and FCSB came after a protracted fight by well-funded groups intended to upend the race-neutral admissions standards nationwide. Originally, the case was brought against the FCPS Board in 2020 by the Coalition for TJ, a small group of activists that were represented by Pacific Legal, a conservative foundation whose primary objective involves fighting against affirmative action in higher education. After the revised policy was upheld by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in May, the Coalition for TJ and Pacific Legal announced they planned to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, despite the fact that students from the original case are no longer involved, as they are sophomores and juniors in high school. The lawsuit by the Coalition for TJ does not name any current students in its case, yet it alleges that the revised TJ admissions policy discriminated against Asian American students, and that admissions decisions are not based on merit.
It has been suggested that the Coalition for TJ lacks support of most current TJ parents and students after two years of protracted internal conflicts at the high school, as evidenced by the miniscule number of current TJ parents and students who attend Coalition for TJ rallies and events. In fact, there was considerable discussion among prospective TJ parents who considered suing the Coalition for TJ for holding up the TJ admissions decisions for the class of 2026. Whether this was a joke or not, it is clear that sentiment in Fairfax County has changed after protracted attacks on the TJ community and PTSA over TJ admissions and National Merit commended certificates.
Additionally, there are a number of local and national Asian American organizations that support the race-neutral TJ admission policies, which increase diversity, provide fairer access to education, and agree with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some well-respected organizations like Hamkae Center, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, TJ Alumni for Racial Justice, Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development have signed on to an amicus brief in support of FCPS and the school board. Other local civil rights community groups that support the admission reforms include CASA Virginia, Hispanic Federation, and Fairfax NAACP. Despite the Coalition for TJ’s assertions otherwise, many Asian Americans are in favor of affirmative action, particularly students who would be directly affected by such policies.
Similarly, national opinions on affirmative action also run the gamut, as recent polls show. Some polls show that the majority of Americans agree with the Supreme Court decision and other polls suggest that the majority of Americans do not agree with the decision.
Not surprisingly, opinions tend to divide on political lines. In a recent Pew survey 77 percent of Republicans did not see a need to do anything to ensure equal rights for all Americans. Similarly, a 2022 survey conducted by FiveThirtyEight indicates that up to 25% of those surveyed think that discrimination against white people is greater than that against other ethnic groups (!).
Nonetheless, the majority of Americans support affirmative action in both higher education and the workplace. Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, shared concerns that “civil rights legislation has not been nearly enough to address or correct more than 350 years of discriminatory practices intended to keep people of color away from higher education institutions,” thus she is supportive of race-conscious admissions. Additionally, a recent Pew Research poll showed that more than one-half of Asians who have heard of affirmative action believe that it is a good thing.
Regardless of one’s opinion, the considerable expense and effort allocated to end secondary education affirmative action programs aimed at helping underrepresented groups attend college should give pause to all in this debate, including the Supreme Court.
The most recent Supreme Court decision is contrary to 45 years of precedent established by previous Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court has been ruling on affirmative action cases since 1978 when it upheld the use of race as one of the factors that could be used in admissions decisions. Janai Nelson, President and Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, stated that the recent decision showed the Court is “ignoring its own long-standing precedent, and distorting the legacy of the seminal decision in Brown v. Board of Education — which held that society must not turn a blind eye to racial inequality and an take necessary measures to address it.”
The impassioned dissents by Supreme Court Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor have pointed out the potentially devastating impact of the Court’s ruling. Justice Brown Jackson noted that “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life,” and Justice Sotomayor noted the decision rolled back “decades of precedent and momentous progress.”
"Deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life." - Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson
Supreme Court Justice John Roberts wrote in the recent majority opinion that colleges can still consider an applicant's essay and “how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise”. This gives institutions of higher education some ‘wiggle room’, but as Roberts cautioned, this can not be used as a way to get around the ruling.
The biggest difference between the prospective Coalition for TJ case and those of the University of California and University of North Carolina is that the latter cases involved race-based admissions, while TJ uses race-neutral criteria to make admissions decisions.
Since the recent Supreme Court opinion suggests that schools rely on race-neutral rather than race-based means of improving diversity, 4 Public Education is confident that the decision by the 4th Circuit Court should be upheld by the Supreme Court, if in fact the Supreme Court decides to hear the case.
Cover photo by Chip Somodevilla for CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2022/11/03/us/affirmative-action-asian-americans-qa-cec/index.html