In early October 2020, the school board at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (“TJ”) in Fairfax County, Virginia, met to discuss changes to the admissions system to fashion a more diverse student body.  TJ is often ranked as the No. 1 public high school in the country but has a history of struggling to admit Black and Hispanic students at the same rate as white or Asian students.  One of the revisions proposed, and eventually adopted, was eliminating the grueling admissions test and cancelling the application fee.

Following this decision, 17 families sued the Fairfax County School Board in local proceedings, calling the removal of the test and application fee “an illegal and arbitrary decision.”  These families, students, and alumni are part of an action group, the Coalition for TJ, that argue changes to the admissions process could force unqualified students into a rigorous academic environment and drive down TJ’s stellar national rating.  The local suit sought both preliminary and permanent injunctions which would have required the school board and superintendent to reinstate testing.  The Fairfax County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the School Board, denying the motion for preliminary injunction and declining to mandate the School Board reinstate the admissions test.

In late December, the Fairfax County School Board approved a “holistic review” admissions process that invited qualified eighth-graders to apply by completing an essay and a biographical sheet.  The new system required admissions evaluators to consider factors such as the student’s socioeconomic status, whether the child has disabilities and whether they come from households that do not speak English.  That overhaul is the focus of the new lawsuit, brought by Coalition of TJ.  The group is being represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, a legal group that has been sharply critical of affirmative action.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on March 10, 2021.  The Coalition charges that revisions to TJ’s admissions process were specifically meant to drive down the number of Asian students enrolled at the school and cites presentations and comments made by the superintendent and school board members to try to prove that point. (Compl. at ¶¶41-53).  Much like the complaint filed by SFFA against Harvard, the Coalition of TJ alleges the school’s admission policy violates the Fourteenth Amendment by intentionally discriminating against the admission of Asian-American students in favor of admitting Black and Hispanic students.  (Compl. at ¶61).  The Complaint alleges the new admissions policy’s plan to automatically admit the top 1.5% of students from each middle school in the district would act as an unnatural cap and disproportionately impact Asian-American students.

At the time of writing, Fairfax County School Board has not submitted a reply brieBoth the Coalition and the Board filed cross motions for summary judgment, and on February 25, 2022, Virginia District Court Judge Claude Hilton granted the Coalition’s motion. Judge Hilton found that the Board failed to articulate a compelling interest that justified “racially discriminatory changes to the TJ admissions process,” and that the Board failed to prove that the changed admissions policy was necessary to accomplish that interest. (Dist. Ct. Dec. at 29-30). Judge Hilton granted the Coalition’s motion for summary judgment. The Board has since filed a motion to stay the ruling pending an appeal.