FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- A premier public high school in northern Virginia has dramatically increased the number of Black and Hispanic students offered admission under a new application system that some Asian American parents say discriminates against their children.
On Wednesday, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County released demographic data on the 550 students who were offered admission to the school this fall as incoming freshmen. The percentage of Black students increased from 1% last year to 7% this year. Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11% and white representation increased from 18% to 22%.
Asian American representation decreased from 73% to 54%.
Across the county school system as a whole, about 38% of students are white, 27% are Hispanic, 20% are Asian and 10% are Black.
TJ, as the school is commonly known, routinely ranks as one of the best public schools in the country — it was named best school in the country in the most recent rankings from U.S. News and World Report. For decades, though, Black and Hispanic students have been underrepresented under an admissions system that relied heavily on standardized testing.
This year, the county school board overhauled the admissions process, eliminating the standardized testing and application fees. Slots were set aside for the top students at each of the county's middle schools, replacing a system where a handful of top-performing middle schools dominated the process.
The drop in Asian American representation was anticipated: a group of parents has sued the school board in federal court, claiming the new procedures discriminate against Asian American students who thrived under the old system. The judge hearing the case declined to issue an injunction barring the new rules from taking effect, but made clear in his comments that he has concerns about the school system's new policies.
He sounded skeptical when lawyers for the school system insisted the new system is race neutral.
"Everybody knows the policy is not race neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” Judge Claude Hilton said. “You can say all sorts of beautiful things while you’re doing others.”
In an interview Thursday, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand insisted the new policies are race neutral, and said he expects them to withstand legal scrutiny. He compared the new admissions process to one used by public universities in Texas, which guarantees admission to the top 10% of students at high schools across the state. That system has withstood legal challenges from applicants who argued the geographical set-asides function as a proxy for racial quotas.
“If it's good enough for Texas universities, it's good enough for FCPS,” Brabrand said.
Asra Nomani, a TJ parent and member of the parent group Coalition for TJ that filed the discrimination lawsuit, said the sharp drop in Asian American enrollment is exactly what the school board wanted.
“The numbers validate the argument that they've launched a targeted attack on Asian Americans,” Nomani said, noting that all other racial groups, including whites, saw their proportional representation increase under the new system. “There are so many deserving students that were gerrymandered out of this school by geographic quotas and socioeconomic factors that were used as a proxy for race.”
The debate over TJ admissions mirrors a national one, with high-profile magnet schools in New York and California engaged in similar discussions about increasing Black and Hispanic enrollment at schools with majority Asian student bodies.