Supreme Court allows what critics call 'racial balancing' at elite public school

The court's majority did not explain its decision; Thomas and Alito dissented.

February 20, 2024, 10:42 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court will allow one of the nation's top public schools to move forward with a new admissions policy that critics say has "racial balancing" at its core.

The closely watched case from Fairfax County in northern Virginia involves Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

For years, its student body -- drawn from a race-blind process relying heavily on standardized tests -- was more than 70% Asian American. In 2020, school board officials shifted to a more holistic approach that has resulted in greater numbers of white, Hispanic and Black students enrolled. While fewer Asian American students were admitted, they still made up more than half the incoming class.

The most recently-admitted class of freshmen was comprised of 61.6% Asian-American students, 19% white students, 6.7% Black students and 6.0% Hispanic students, the school said in a statement.

A district court struck the policy because of alleged racial motivations of officials, but a narrowly divided appeals court reversed the decision and said it was permissible.

A majority of Supreme Court justices voted to let that ruling stand; they did not explain their decision.

“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,” said Karl Frisch, Fairfax County School Board chairman, in a statement after the court's decision.

The school board has maintained the policy was adopted to improve socioeconomic and geographic diversity -- not racial balancing.

PHOTO:In this Feb. 4, 2024 file photo, the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
In this Feb. 4, 2024 file photo, the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the decision, saying the board's alleged motivations violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and are "indefensible."

"The holding below effectively licenses official actors to discriminate against any racial group with impunity as long as that group continues to perform at a higher rate than other groups," Thomas and Alito wrote.

“Today, the American Dream was dealt a blow, but we remain committed to protecting the values of merit, equality, and justice — and we will prevail for the future of our children and for the nation we love and embrace,” said Asra Nomani, co-founder of Coalition for TJ, which brought the suit against the school district.

“For the courageous families who have tirelessly fought for the principles that our nation holds dear, this decision is a setback but not a death blow to our commitment to the American Dream, which promises equal opportunity and justice for all," Nomani said.