School Board Defies Court Ruling of Discrimination Against Asian Students

While bitter divisions over mask mandates and critical race theory have dominated school news in Loudoun County, Virginia, over the past few months, a separate battle has been waging fiercely in adjacent Fairfax County over equity policy.

It was late last week when the mounting wave of conflict between parents and Fairfax County School Board members over equity admissions policies at the acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHS) spilled over.

That's when school officials walked out of their own meeting on Thursday after parents protested the board's refusal to comply with the federal ruling that they had violated the law by changing the school's admissions to limit the number of Asian American students enrolled.

Then, on Friday, the board's motion for a stay of the court's prior ruling, which would have allowed the Fairfax County Public Schools district to complete admissions for the next freshman class with the old admissions policy, was denied.

Now, the riptide of contention has rolled into this week as the school district has announced it is seeking an appeal to Friday's ruling against their admissions process at the highly selective magnet school.

Fairfax County School Board
A sign hung by parents is displayed during last Thursday's Fairfax County School Board meeting. Asra Nomani, Coalition for TJ

It was back on February 25 that U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled that the northern Virginia school system was guilty of discriminating against Asian American students when it opted to change its merit-based admissions policies.

In the wake of criticism over a lack of diversity, the school board decided to eliminate a standardized test that was central to getting admitted. It also chose to set aside slots from the county's middle schools and incorporated "experience factors" like a prospective student's socioeconomic background as part of the admissions process. The efforts toward a procedure based on how "disadvantaged" a student is resulted in the school having to offer remedial math.

Thomas Jefferson High School Virginia Discrimination
At the acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, the school board, community and courts clash over admissions after a judge rules school policy unlawfully limits the number of Asian American students. Above, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 10, 2021. Matthew Barakat/Associated Press File

Critics of the changes, some of whom are part of the grassroots Coalition for TJ, a group of parents, students and community members advocating for both diversity and excellence in the school, alleged that the school desires to reduce its majority of Asian American students in favor of admitting more Blacks, Hispanics and whites.

It was after Hilton made his initial ruling that School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky said it was "so inconsistent with current law on diversity efforts" that the board couldn't stand by and allow it to go unchallenged.

"We cannot walk away now after making so much progress toward a fair and equitable system," said Pekarsky.

In a statement released Monday, the Fairfax County School Board said its appeal filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit challenges Hilton's ruling that would invalidate what they described as their "race-neutral admissions process" at TJHS. The school board also plans to ask the appeals court to stay the ruling to allow it to complete the selection process for the incoming freshman class.

"Judge Hilton's ruling is highly damaging. Failing to challenge it would jeopardize race-neutral diversity efforts not just within Fairfax County Public Schools or at TJHS, but also within public education more broadly," the statement read. "The School Board believes that Judge Hilton's decision does not reflect extensive federal case law that supports race-neutral admissions, and is asking the federal appeals court to review the decision."

The Virginia state-chartered magnet school is routinely rated among the best public high schools in the United States and historically has operated under a merit-based admissions policy. While Black and Hispanic students have long been underrepresented in its student body, the change from such a policy in essence pushes Asians out of the magnet math and science school.

"In the name of equity, the school board has been trying to lower the number of Asian Americans at the top math and science and technology high school in the nation," Kenny Xu, author of the book An Inconvenient Minority, told Newsweek.

Xu said the school's new proposal would have lowered the percentage of Asian Americans at the school from 73 percent to 50 percent, which would continue to dip every year.

"By attempting to create an admission policy that lowers the percentage of Asians and raises the percent of Black, Hispanic and whites, the school is actively discriminating against the most talented and hardest working people and sends a message that hard work is not enough—you also have to be the right race."

Admissions data for 2021 gives credence to the decline in percentage of Asian American enrollments, which fell from 73 percent to 54 percent, according to numbers cited in January by Pacific Legal Foundation's Chris Kieser. He was one of the attorneys that represented Coalition for TJ in the lawsuit. The Associated Press has also cited the enrollment of Black students increasing from 1 percent to 7 percent, and Hispanics from 3 percent to 11 percent, while white students have also increased.

Parent Norma Margulies was there last week when school officials walked out halfway through the heated school board meeting, as some Asian parents chanted that the school was "racist."

"We all agree that we do need to bring more Hispanic and Blacks to STEM fields," Margulies told Newsweek, adding that providing financial incentives would be one way to help. "The right way to do it is to work with them, invest in them, provide enrichment and get the families involved in the process. For Hispanics, that involvement is everything."

Margulies, as well as fellow parent Julia McCaskill, witnessed the treatment of Asra Nomani, a mother of a former TJHS student and co-founder of Coalition for TJ, as she addressed school officials.

"You are the new face of racism," Nomani told board members with a sign on her back that said "Stop Asian Hate" and the hashtag #unfairfax below it. Nomani also held a stack of books titled Race to the Bottom by investigative reporter Luke Rosiak, which chronicles anti-merit school policies that Nomani intended to give to the board secretary for each board member.

Nomani, along with Margulies and McCaskill, have noted how it's been a practice during the televised school board meetings to purposefully not film the faces of parents who are speaking. They also said it's been typical for the camera to zoom in and out in an effort to keep the group of parents gathered opposing the board's revised admission policies out of view.

At Thursday's meeting while Nomani spoke, her voice trembling in anger, she also reprimanded two men standing close to her acting as "security" for trying to intimidate her while she took her turn at the podium.

"What I experienced was the type of bullying and intimidation tactics of failed school boards across the country," Nomani told Newsweek. "These education politicians just keep ramping it up and trying to shut parents up ... They do everything they possibly can to caricature and dehumanize us."

"For their mission, they threw Asian kids under the bus," she added. "What they did to me manifests the tyranny they are waging on parents everywhere."

"Equity is their way to even the field," said McCaskill, about the school board's approach. She also noted what she described as the usual disrespectful smirks and rolling of the eyes that she witnessed by board members as parents spoke.

"The only way to achieve equal outcome for them is to slow down someone ... to lower the standard so everyone has the equal outcome," she added.

Meanwhile, the case and ongoing showdown between parents and school board members continues to be monitored as courts across the nation evaluate the role that racial considerations can play when it comes to the competitive admissions process to top schools.

"Judge Hilton had it right (with the suggestion) to provide a free-of-cost program to prepare students for the TJHS test," said Margulies. "So there are right ways to prepare for Thomas Jefferson High and to promote diversity by following those steps of hard work and investment."

"What the Fairfax county schools did is they took a shortcut," she said.