Fairfax County School Board files appeal over admissions ruling for Thomas Jefferson

Virginia’s Fairfax County School Board filed an appeal Monday challenging a judge’s ruling that would halt new admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

In a statement about U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton’s decision, the board called the ruling “highly damaging.”

“Failing to challenge it would jeopardize race-neutral diversity efforts not just within Fairfax County Public Schools or at TJ, but also within public education more broadly,” the board’s statement said.

“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.”

On Friday, Hilton rejected a request from Fairfax County Public Schools to delay the implementation of his ruling. In that ruling, he said that the school system illegally discriminated against Asian Americans when it overhauled admissions policies at “TJ,” a highly sought-after school near the nation’s capital that is often ranked as the best public high schools in the country.

But FCPS argued that its selection process for the incoming freshman class at Thomas Jefferson was well underway, and implementing his ruling now would throw the process into chaos.

The school system said it will challenge the latest ruling as well.

School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky said the judge’s ruling was disappointing.

“We feel strongly that it doesn’t reflect the extensive federal case law that support race-neutral admissions,” Pekarsky said. “We felt that because of that, we would like a federal appeals court to review and give an opinion on that, because as it stands, Judge Hilton’s decision has wide-reaching implications, well beyond TJ, FCPS, implications throughout the public education domain.”

In the statement, the board said, “The intent of the school division was to design a process that removes systemic screening barriers that have historically impacted talented students from diverse backgrounds. Equity of access ensures that all applicants with the potential and aptitude — regardless of circumstance or background — have the opportunity to attend this Governor’s School,” the board said.

“Change for the right reason is always difficult. While there were struggles and challenges along the way, the admissions data for the Class of 2025 reflects our efforts to achieve greater access and opportunity throughout the county.”

Hilton said Friday that the school system has been aware for months that its process could be in jeopardy and that it should be prepared now to revise it to eliminate aspects he found unconstitutional.

He said there is a risk of “irreparable harm to the students who have been found to have been discriminated against” if the school system were allowed to use those same procedures for a second straight year.

The case has been closely watched as courts continue to evaluate the role that racial considerations can play when deciding who should be admitted to a particular school. Similar debates have popped up at elite public schools in New York, California and elsewhere. Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process.

Hilton ruled last month that impermissible “racial balancing” was at the core of what motivated the county school board to overhaul admissions at TJ.

For decades, Black and Hispanic students have been woefully underrepresented in the student body. In the wake of criticism over a lack of diversity, the school board scrapped a standardized test that had been at the heart of the admissions process. It opted instead for a process that sets aside slots at each of the county’s middle schools. It also includes “experience factors” like socioeconomic background.

A parents’ group sued in federal court, arguing that Asian Americans, who constituted more than 70% of the student body at TJ, were unfairly targeted in the new policy.

The school’s current freshman class, which was admitted under the new policy, saw a significantly different racial makeup. Black students increased from 1% to 7%. Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%. Asian American representation, meanwhile, decreased from 73% to 54%.

Pekarsky, the school board chair, said she visited the school recently and that the focus remains on classwork despite the attention on the lawsuit and admission policy.

“I knew there is uncertainty, and I know that we’re talking about all of these admissions policies and so on and so forth,” Pekarsky said, “but the staff is doing a really great job on keeping kids engaged where they should be, which is academics and just being together again.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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