11 Jul 2023 Stone Washington: Don’t Stop At College — End Race-Based Admissions In Public Schools
There’s an important battle brewing in our public schools between equity and treating students equally under the law.
Equitable treatment of one class of students always breeds inequitable outcomes for less fortunate students. This discriminatory new form of Affirmative Action is beginning to take hold of elite public schools in America. It used to be that all students were expected to receive equal treatment in our public education system, following Brown v. Board of Education (1954). But the reality shows that some students are treated more equally than others.
Instead of applying an equal set of standards to all students, some elite public schools in America are beginning to adopt selective admissions standards that favor certain student groups over others. Color-blind equality under the law is no longer a satisfactory benchmark, as administrators now seek to artificially control how their incoming classes will appear.
If one racial group is deemed to be too successful as a representative portion of an admitted class, policies are put in place to level the playing field by enabling less successful racial groups to expand their representative size at the expense of admitting less high-achieving students. This is often called “racial balancing.”
Equal admissions standards are being eclipsed by “equity” at competitive public schools like Thomas Jefferson (TJ) high school in Alexandria, Virginia. TJ has consistently been ranked the top public high school in the U.S., designed for gifted students in the STEM fields. For years, the school has abided by a strict test-based admission program, admitting students on the basis of their performing well on a standardized exam. There were no determining factors to an applicant’s race. Asians tended to outperform their peers on the exam, steadily growing in size as a result of high-test scores. In 2021, Asians comprised 73 percent of the overall student body.
But in the wake of the George Floyd riots in 2020, TJ replaced this race-neutral process in favor of an equity-based policy. When looking to 2022 enrollment data, TJ’s policy led to a 19 percent decline in admitted Asian students, while slightly increasing the enrollment numbers of Blacks by 6 percent and Hispanic students by 8 percent. For the Class of 2025, this meant that only 48.59 percent of eligible applicants to TJ were Asians, marking a 54 percent decline of their representation of the student body. This steep decline over the controversial policy change has sparked outrage among a host of concerned parents, igniting a battle over equity that has broiled into a high-profile legal case.
On behalf of the Coalition for TJ, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) filed suit against the Fairfax County School Board over their equity policy in 2021, scoring a victory to overturn the policy in the Eastern District Court of Virginia last February. Invoking Constitutional law, Judge Claude Hilton found that Fairfax County failed to satisfy the strict scrutiny test because their equity policy wasn’t narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling governmental interest. It was also clear, based on the data, that Asian Americans were disparately harmed as a result of the policy when compared to other racial groups.
The “set aside” portion of the policy allowed for only 1.5 percent of a qualifying middle school’s graduating class to apply. This forced Asian applicants to compete more vigorously against each other, pitting the most eligible and dedicated applicants against their less successful classmates. Those who failed to make the 1.5 percent selection were placed in the unallocated pool to compete for only 100 spots.
Judge Hilton points to an additional layer of disparate treatment for Asians, where the unallocated pool applicants are assessed based on whether they attended a “historically unrepresented” middle school. By TJ’s valuation, none of the six major Fairfax County feeder schools met this qualification, placing successful Asian applicants from these institutions at a severe disadvantage.
Following the district court’s ruling, Fairfax County appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit Court. The Court granted Fairfax County’s request to impose a stay on the equity policy as it applies to Class of 2026 applicants. Seeking to overturn this, PLF made an unsuccessful emergency plea to the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed the policy to remain in place pending a decision from the Fourth Circuit.
Last month, the policy was officially upheld by 2-1 ruling from the Fourth Circuit. The divided Court deemed the equitable policy to be constitutional, stating that TJ possessed a legitimate public interest in expanding the rate of diversity in a manner that was prima facie racially neutral. There is a strong likelihood that the Parents for TJ coalition will soon petition its case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The timing would be perfect, given the Court is weighing a pivotal case on whether public universities like UNC and private universities like Harvard can factor in racial considerations when making admissions decisions.
While racially neutral on its face, TJ’s equity policy undeniably targets Asian American applicants by dismantling admissions standards in areas where Asians traditionally excelled. Fairfax County does not possess the legal authority to impair one racial group’s access to education in order to advantage others. The County cannot justify the replacement of its race-neutral standards of equality for race-restrictive policies in equity. Equity only breeds inequitable outcomes for marginalized racial groups, while unfairly advantaging those underrepresented groups with a favored status. As a result, some students are treated “more equal” than others.
Evidence shows that public schools choosing to abandon a merit-based system often suffer academically. In 2020, Lowell High School in San Francisco temporarily scraped its merit-based policy in exchange for a lottery-based system. This led to nearly a quarter of 9th grade students receiving a D or an F grade by the Fall of 2021, marking a three-fold increase from the previous year. Additionally, there was a substantial decline in the school’s national ranking. A similar trend has transpired among New York City’s elite eight public schools over calls to abolish the SHSAT, with a marked decline in student GPAs and class productivity. Some have even pointed to how the test itself is not to blame for the small portion of minority students attending these elite NYC high schools.
Rather than lowering the barrier of entry for Asian students, school districts should direct resources toward helping underrepresented groups improve their chances for admission. Public elementary and middle schools should do better to lay the groundwork for academic success that stretches across every racial group. Giving everyone an equal shot at receiving a good education must be the paramount goal. Disadvantaging one racial group’s chance at success in order to ensure that others obtain better outcomes does not inspire fairness in academia.