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Virginia High School Admissions Case Presents Potential Legal Implications for Affirmative Action

by Ethan Kim
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affirmative action

In light of a recent federal appeals court ruling regarding the admissions policy at a prestigious public high school in Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court may find an opportunity to clarify the extent of its ban on affirmative action in college admissions. The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, renowned as one of America’s top public schools, enforces a highly competitive admission process.

In 2021, a group of parents, supported by a conservative legal foundation, filed a lawsuit challenging TJ’s admissions policy, and now seeks Supreme Court intervention. While the issues raised in this case are similar to those addressed in the high court’s rejection of admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina as unconstitutional, they are not identical.

Unlike the college admissions rules that considered race among various factors, all parties involved in the TJ case agree that the admissions policies in question are ostensibly race-neutral. However, the coalition behind the lawsuit argues that the admissions criteria serve as “race-based proxies” designed to achieve racial balance. They claim that the policy discriminates against Asian Americans, who constituted 70% of the student body.

The coalition points to a discussion among Fairfax County School Board members when the new policy was implemented in 2020. Board members and administrators expressed frustration over the longstanding underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students at TJ. The coalition contends that the new policies aim to increase Black and Hispanic representation at the expense of Asians.

The first freshman class admitted under the new rules exhibited a noticeable shift in racial composition. Black student representation increased from 1% to 7%, Hispanic representation increased from 3% to 11%, and Asian American representation decreased from 73% to 54%.

The revised policies replaced a standardized test with a process that considers geographic distribution and “experience factors,” such as coming from a low-income household or being a non-native English speaker.

Last year, a federal judge declared the admissions policy unconstitutional, citing evidence of discussions tainted with intentions of racial balancing. However, in May, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned that ruling. In a 2-1 decision, the judges acknowledged the school board’s legitimate interest in promoting diversity and deemed the accusations of discrimination against Asian Americans contrary to common sense.

Representing the parents who claim anti-Asian discrimination, the Pacific Legal Foundation is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. They believe it provides a compelling opportunity and hope the Court will take it up.

Legal experts anticipate a series of subsequent cases following the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action, as colleges seek ways to salvage policies they are committed to despite the ban. However, it remains uncertain whether the TJ case will carry significant weight. The constitutionality debate surrounding TJ’s policies will depend on factual details and the motivations behind the school board’s implementation of the policy.

Rather than the TJ case, the focus may shift to debates over how colleges can achieve similar outcomes as the now-prohibited affirmative action programs by utilizing essay questions on diversity and race-related topics. Although the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts left room for colleges to consider applicants’ essays and how race influenced their lives, he made it clear that the establishment of an unlawful regime through application essays or other means is not permissible.

While colleges may attempt to incorporate subtle forms of considering race through essay questions, it is expected that the current composition of the Court will reject such attempts. Fairfax County Public Schools are presently reviewing the Supreme Court ruling.

The Pacific Legal Foundation plans to formally submit its petition to the Supreme Court in August, and a decision on whether the case will be heard is anticipated by the end of the year.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about affirmative action, high school admissions, Supreme Court, Virginia, college admissions

What is the Virginia high school admissions case about?

The Virginia high school admissions case revolves around the admissions policy at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. It raises questions about the constitutionality of the policy and its potential impact on affirmative action in college admissions.

What are the arguments presented in the case?

The coalition behind the lawsuit argues that the admissions criteria at the high school serve as “race-based proxies” to achieve racial balance, discriminating against Asian Americans. They claim the policy aims to increase Black and Hispanic representation at the expense of Asians. The school board, however, contends that the policy is intended to promote diversity.

How does this case relate to affirmative action in college admissions?

The case could provide an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the scope of its ruling on affirmative action in college admissions. The admissions policies at the high school are viewed as race-neutral on the surface, unlike the college admissions policies that consider race among various factors.

What changes were made to the admissions policy at the high school?

The revised admissions policies replaced a standardized test with a process that takes into account geographic distribution and “experience factors” such as socio-economic background and language proficiency.

What were the outcomes of previous rulings on the case?

A federal judge initially found the admissions policy unconstitutional, citing evidence of discussions tainted with intentions of racial balancing. However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned that ruling, stating that the school board had a legitimate interest in promoting diversity.

What is the Pacific Legal Foundation’s role in the case?

The Pacific Legal Foundation represents the parents who claim anti-Asian discrimination and is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. They believe it presents a strong opportunity to address the issues at hand.

What could be the broader implications of this case?

The case may lead to debates on how colleges can achieve similar outcomes as affirmative action programs, especially regarding the use of essay questions on diversity and race-related topics. It could also prompt discussions on the motivations behind admissions policies and their impact on different racial groups.

More about affirmative action, high school admissions, Supreme Court, Virginia, college admissions

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