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Lawsuit challenges new admissions policy at elite Va. school

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Alexandria, Va., where her organization filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County's school board, alleging discrimination against Asian Americans over its revised admissions process for the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)
Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference outside the federal courthouse, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Alexandria, Va., where her organization filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County's school board, alleging discrimination against Asian Americans over its revised admissions process for the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A conservative legal group sued a northern Virginia school district Wednesday, alleging that its efforts to draw more Black and Hispanic students to a selective public high school end up discriminating against Asian Americans.

The Pacific Legal Foundation's lawsuit against the Fairfax County school board was prompted by the school system's decision to overhaul the admissions process at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Located in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, the school is frequently ranked as the best in the country, and families plan for years to try to help their children gain admission.

The student body is 70% Asian American, with minuscule numbers of Black and Hispanic students.

The Fairfax County school board voted last year to revise the admissions process and eliminate a standardized test that had been a key part of the evaluation process. It also set aside a specific number of slots for students at each of the middle schools in the county.

Board members have said they hope the new process increases Black and Hispanic representation in the student body.

The lawsuit, though, alleges that the set-asides will end up hurting Asian American families that are clustered in a handful of middle schools that currently send large numbers of students to “TJ,” as the school is known.

Erin Wilcox, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said at a press conference Wednesday that the policies themselves are discriminatory, but the intent is made even more clear by statements from board members who said they want the changes to result in a student body with a racial makeup that matches the county's demographics.

“The discriminatory intent they've shown is intertwined and an inseparable part of the policies they put in place,” Wilcox said.

The school system has said its new process is still race neutral. In a statement, the system said it remains “committed to ensuring that all FCPS students have access and opportunities to reach their fullest potential. It is in that vein that the Board fervently supported removing the historical barriers and inequities faced by students from culturally and ethnically diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, while still ensuring that TJ maintains its high academic standards.”

Filed in federal court in Alexandria, Wednesday's lawsuit is the second one to challenge the school system's new admissions policy. A lawsuit in Fairfax County court alleges that the new procedures violate state rules regulating gifted education.

Asra Nomani, a TJ parent who has led opposition to the changes, said the new policies are part of a “growing tide of racism against Asian Americans.” She said many of the TJ families are recent immigrants who came to the U.S. for a chance at equal opportunity.

“These families never could have imagined they would face such injustice in America,” she said.

Similar debates have occurred at other elite public schools, including in New York City and San Francisco.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether to hear a long-running legal case against Harvard University over whether its admissions polices discriminate against Asian Americans.

Wilcox said that the rules governing K-12 schools are different than those governing colleges, but she acknowledged that a Supreme Court ruling on the Harvard case could affect the TJ lawsuit. As it stands now, lower courts have ruled in favor of Harvard.