A federal judge ruled that the Fairfax County school board’s race-based admission process to an elite high school illegally discriminated against Asian American students.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) is the best high school in the nation and is known for its academic rigor. Historically, the admission process at TJ was race-blind and merit-based. Applicants must go through a multi-stage evaluation process and meet a set of criteria, including passing three competitive standardized tests. For the 2020-2021 school year, the racial makeup of TJ was 71.97 percent Asian American, 18.34 percent white, 3.05 percent Hispanic, and 1.77 percent black.
Following George Floyd’s tragic death in 2020, the Fairfax County school board deemed the “overrepresentation” of Asian American students and the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at TJ “unacceptable.” To “counter racism and discrimination in our society,” the board believed it must change TJ’s admission process and criteria to bring in more black and Hispanic students by reducing the number of Asian American students.
The school board quickly voted to replace TJ’s merit-based admission with a “holistic” evaluation, aiming to make the TJ student body closely mimic the racial demographics of Fairfax County. At the time, the countywide racial makeup of students was: 36.8 percent white, 27.1 percent Hispanic, 19.8 percent Asian, and 10 percent black.
Lowering Standards for ‘Equity’
The school board eliminated the three competitive entrance exams and altered minimum academic requirements. TJ’s new “holistic” admission is a point-based system. Students who meet specific social-economic criteria, such as attending a middle school deemed “historically underrepresented at TJ” or being eligible for free and reduced lunches will receive “experience factors” — basically bonus points to boost their total score and help them secure admissions at TJ. The new admission process also guarantees seats at TJ for 1.5 percent of students at each participating public middle school in the district.
The school board claimed such holistic admission was necessary to “achieve greater equity” and was not about “eliminating merit but rather reframing our understanding of merit.” But text messages and emails from the school board members had demonstrated that they knew from the start that the new admission was really about decreasing the representation of qualified Asian American students at TJ to attain the board’s desired racial balance in the school’s student body.
Furthermore, board members were fully aware that, contrary to their stated objective of achieving education “equity” for students of color, TJ’s new process’s biggest beneficiary wouldn’t be black or Hispanic students but white students. In a text exchange, school board member Stella Pekarsky wrote that the new proposal “will whiten our schools and kick [out] Asians. How is that achieving the goal of diversity?” Another member, Abrar Omeish, replied, “I mean, there has been an anti Asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it, lol!”
After TJ’s new admission process went into effect in 2021, the enrollment data revealed that TJ admitted 56 fewer Asian American students than it did in the prior school year. Asian Americans make up 54 percent of TJ’s 2025 class, significantly dropping from 73 percent of class 2024.
When Asian, black, and other concerned parents voiced concern about the fairness of TJ’s new admission process, the school board used racially charged terms to denounce them, such as telling Asian Americans to check their “privilege” and calling any advocacy for a merit-based admission “segregation bullsh*t.” This name-calling revealed the school board’s bigotry and ignorance of the ethnic diversity and wide income gaps within the Asian American community. Refusing to give up, Asian American parents led a coalition of families and alumni from diverse racial backgrounds to challenge TJ’s race-based admission process in court. The Pacific Legal Foundation provided legal representation to the coalition.
The Real Discrimination
In his ruling, federal judge Claude Hilton determined that the Fairfax County school board’s discussion of TJ admission changes “was infected with racial balancing since inception” and had demonstrated “discriminatory intent.” TJ’s enrollment data proved beyond doubt that the new “holistic” admissions had disproportionately affected Asian American students, depriving them of a level playing field. Judge Hilton further noted, “Whether accomplished overtly or via proxies, racial balancing is not a compelling interest,” and the board “cannot transform racial balancing into a compelling interest, simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity.'” Judge Hilton concluded that “racial balancing for its own sake is ‘patently unconstitutional.'” Therefore, he ruled in favor of the coalition.
The TJ case represents another triumph of Asian Americans’ activism. In San Francisco, partially driven by the school board’s decision to eliminate a merit-based admission to Lowell High school, Asian Americans led a grass-roots campaign to recall three leftist school board members with a landslide victory.
Asian Americans Fight For Meritocracy
The Democrat Party and its progressive allies have to realize by now that there is nothing more important to Asian Americans than education and meritocracy. Many Asian Americans are immigrants like me, who came to the United States with no intergenerational wealth nor deep-rooted network. A meritocracy-based education provides us with the only fair chance to succeed in this country. When Democrats and their progressive allies eliminate meritocracy-based education and deny Asian kids an equal opportunity, it is no different than burning down the single ladder Asian Americans rely on for upward mobility. As both the San Francisco school board recall and the TJ lawsuit have demonstrated, Asian Americans will fight against such injustice and bigotry with all our vigor, tenacity, and determination.
Judge Hilton’s ruling in the TJ case also dealt a decisive blow to the race-based admission policy. A survey by Pew Research shows that most Americans (73 percent) believe schools should not consider race or ethnicity when making decisions about student admissions. Yet Democrats and their allies continue to ignore public opinions while pushing for racial preference in elite high schools and colleges, all in the name of equity and anti-racism.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to take on two college affirmative action cases. It will consider whether the undergraduate admission processes at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina discriminated against Asian American students. Judge Hilton’s ruling gives us hope that the Supreme Court may end racial preference in student admissions once and for all. It will be a great day for our country when no American children will be denied equal opportunity because of the color of their skin.