Fairfax Co. weighs appeal after new admission process at elite high school ruled discriminatory

Virginia’s largest school system said it’s considering “all options around an appeal” a week after a federal judge ruled its new admissions process for an elite public school discriminated against Asian Americans.

Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky said in a statement Friday that the board “believes the ruling is not supported by law and is considering all options around an appeal.”

The county, Pekarsky said, is also requesting a stay, which would allow the current application process for the class of 2026 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) to continue under the existing admissions process while the school system considers next steps.

The announcement comes after U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled last week that “racial balancing” was at the center of a plan to overhaul the school’s admissions process. The school is consistently recognized as one of the best public schools in the country.

The Fairfax County School Board in 2020 changed the school’s admissions process, removing a standardized test in favor of a system that set aside equal numbers of TJ slots at each of the county’s middle schools, among other changes.

In his ruling, Hilton wrote, “The discussion of admissions changes was infected with talk of racial balancing from its inception.”

Although the school has enjoyed a stellar academic reputation for decades, Black and Hispanic students were underrepresented in the student body.

TJ’s current freshman class, the first to be accepted under the new policies, reflected a significant change in racial makeup. Asian representation decreased from 73% to 54%. The percentage of Black students increased from 1% last year to 7%. Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%.

In the statement, Pekarsky said the failure to keep the new admission policy in place for the current application process “would cause uncertainty and distress to the current applicant pool.”

Pekarsky said that about 2,500 applicants for the class of 2026 “have been thoroughly vetted under our existing application process, have met the stringent minimum academic criteria, including a GPA of 3.5 or above, along with enrollment in honors level courses and deserve a place in our application process.”

She said changing the admission process “would cause significant operational disruptions for TJ ahead of the next school year, including hiring decisions, course selections, teaching assignments and the development of curriculum.”

Asra Nomani, co-founder of Coalition for TJ, the group of parents who filed the lawsuit with the help of the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the county “has concluded that they are going to be stubborn in their insistence on putting forward systemic racism against Asian American students.”

“The judge was very clear that he was calling it quits on this failed, racist process that they had put in place,” Nomani, the parent of a class of 2021 TJ graduate, said. “And they should back down and they should go back to the old system that they had that was based on merit and that was race-blind. It served our community well, and Fairfax County needs to take responsibility for its failure to Black and Hispanic students.”

Pekarsky said the current admission process has identified 550 “high-achieving” students for the class of 2025.

“FCPS believes that our new application process will eventually be proven to meet all legal requirements,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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