By DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press
Alexandria, Washington (AP) – A federal court of appeals has approved a request from a school system in northern Virginia to continue to use a highly selective high school appeal appeal policy, while appealing a ruling that found the policy discriminates against American Asian students.
A panel of three U.S. District Court of Appeals judges in Thursday ruled that Fairfax County public schools could continue to use its new admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton rejected the new policy in a ruling in February, saying that “racial balance” is impermissible at heart. Commonly known as “TJ,” the prestigious school near the state capital is often ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country. .
Earlier this month, Hilton also rejected the school system’s request to delay the implementation of its ruling. But the fourth circle, in rulings 3-2, said the school board met the legal requirements to suspend Hilton’s order while its appeal was pending.
The Fourth Circuit Panel agreed with school officials that they argued that because the process of selecting the incoming student class was in progress, the implementation of the Hilton ruling would now put the process into chaos.
Judge Toby Haytens wrote that he had “heavy doubts” about Hilton’s conclusions “as to the different effect and also to the discriminatory purpose” of the new admissions policy.
“In my view, the Fairfax County School Board appellant is likely to succeed in its appeal,” Haytens wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Alison Jones Rushing said that delaying the Hilton ruling while the school board appealed its decision was not in the public interest. Jones said any logistical difficulties or inconveniences associated with changing admissions policies at this late date “simply do not outweigh the violation of constitutional rights.”
“And everyone – even temporarily frustrated candidates and their families – ultimately enjoys a public school admission process that is not tainted by unconstitutional discrimination,” Rushing wrote.
The case is closely watched as the courts continue to assess the role that racial considerations may play in deciding who should be admitted to a particular school. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case alleging that Harvard University discriminated against Asian Americans in its admissions process.
Fairfield County Public Schools said a fourth-round order allows the school board to continue the current application process for the 2026 class selection this spring.
“For 2,500+ students in this pool of applications, this means that the race-blind process set by the School Board in October 2020 will remain in place as the reader’s appeal challenges the court’s decision in February,” the board said in a press release.
The Coalition for TJ parent group, which filed the lawsuit, said fourth-round judges made a “serious mistake” in allowing the school system to continue using its new admissions process.
“If the judges’ decision stands, we would see the public schools in Fairfax County enroll a second class of students in America’s No. 1 public high school through a race-based unconstitutional admissions process,” the coalition said in a statement.
For decades, black and Hispanic students were represented by an unfortunate lack of representation among the students. After criticizing its lack of diversity, the school council repealed a standard test that was at the heart of the admissions process and instead opted for a process that set aside slots in each of the county’s middle schools. It also includes “experience factors” such as socio-economic background.
The parent group claimed in its lawsuit that Asian Americans, who made up more than 70 percent of all students, were unfairly targeted by the new policy.
The school’s current class of students, adopted under the new policy, saw a significantly different racial structure. Black students rose from 1% to 7%; Hispanic representation rose from 3% to 11%. American representation in Asia fell from 73% to 54%.
The school system has insisted that its new policy be gender neutral, and the panel evaluating the candidates is not even aware of the candidate race while conducting its reviews.
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