The Plaintiff Coalition for TJ (Coalition), a group of “concerned parents who reside in and around Fairfax County” Virginia, has challenged a change in the admissions policies used to gain admission to “the nationally-ranked Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.” In a complaint filed on March 10, 2021, the Coalition alleges that the Fairfax County School Board has discarded its prior race-neutral standardized admissions test and has substituted a “holistic review” of individual students with a view toward promoting the admission of “economically disadvantaged” students and students from “underrepresented” groups. In particular, the Coalition argues that references to the need to have the TJ student body “reflect the racial composition of Fairfax County” will lead to unconstitutional racial balancing and discrimination against Asian-American students.
In language that tracks allegations made against Harvard College and Yale University in parallel legal actions, the Coalition argues that there has been a long-standing bias against Asian-American students and that the new policy was adopted with the express purpose of “disadvantaging” that group. It asks that the Board be enjoined from using the new policy and return to its previous approach, an admissions process based on the results of a “race-neutral standardized admission test.”
The case is arguably pathbreaking, laying the basis for determining whether the logic of Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (1977) should be extended to K-12 education. That is, is the attainment of a diverse student body in K-12 schools a compelling educational interest? The Supreme Court was previously asked to make that move in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007). It refused to do so, with Chief Justice Roberts emphasizing that even if it were to accept that argument the two policies before were not “narrowly tailored,” given that race was being not simply “a” factor in admissions decision, but rather the dispositive one. That said, the Roberts opinion commanded only four votes, with Justice Kennedy expressing qualified support in his concurring opinion for the idea that “school boards may pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds through other means.” This case may well provide the courts the opportunity to fully explore and resolve that issue.