Racial Engineering at America’s Top STEM High School

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 3/6

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has developed a fondness for the public spotlight. Routinely ranked the top public high school in the country, Thomas Jefferson High School (TJ) is known for its rigorous STEM curriculum and boasts a 100% pass rate for Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Until recently, the school was also known for its notoriously difficult entrance exam, which guaranteed that the students who were accepted into the school were prepared for its rigor. 

With such bright students, it should be no surprise that TJ often enjoys the attention of the academic world. But lately, TJ has been in the news for another reason entirely: its blatant and aggressive discrimination against Asian-American students. 

Let’s rewind two years and start from the beginning. 

Following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, TJ joined the flood of schools scrambling to issue statements showcasing their support for racial equity. In a message to TJ students and families, Principal Ann Bonitatibus declared that the school had a responsibility to “take actions that counter racism and discrimination” and expressed her regret that TJ’s student body “did not reflect the racial composition in [the Fairfax County Public School district].” Just three months later, the FCPS board unveiled its plan for a new “holistic” admissions system, which removed the long-standing test requirement and instead considered “experience factors” to identify and boost the applications of disadvantaged students.

To be clear, Thomas Jefferson High School has long been a majority-minority school: during the 2020-2021 school year, the student body was 72% Asian. But unfortunately for Asian-American students who hope to attend TJ, the school board doesn’t believe their experiences contribute sufficiently to the diversity of the school. 

The “holistic,” test-blind admissions system enabled TJ administrators to drastically decrease the percentage of Asian students in its effort to achieve racial balancing. For the 2021-2022 school year, the percentage of Asian students admitted dropped to 54%—and based on the school’s own stated purpose, the percentage will drop every year the holistic admissions system is in place.

The discrimination at Thomas Jefferson High School has not gone unchallenged. Armed with shockingly incriminatory messages from school board members involved in revising the admissions process, a group of TJ students, parents, and alumni formed the Coalition for TJ to challenge the discrimination in court. At the end of February, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled in their favor and declared that the policy change constituted an illegal act of racial balancing. 

In this week’s featured article, MTC columnist and long-time lawyer Louis K. Bonham argues that the case was an easy one. The school board’s actions were blatantly discriminatory, and Judge Hilton was right to strike down their ill-conceived admissions policy: 

As is exhaustively shown in the opinion, the Board’s rationale and statements show that they simply bought into the Kendian concept that over- or under-representation of any particular identity group is a sufficient justification for racial “balancing,” even if that requires discriminating against another group. …

The Court thus recognized what [commentators] have been saying for years: the Kendian concept of viewing every racial “imbalance” as sufficient justification for positive discrimination to achieve “balance” or “equity” is illegal under very well settled law. To me, the Court’s decision in this case was easy, and I hope it will inspire others to file similar challenges against DEI programs.

The battle isn’t over yet. Just a few days ago, FCPS requested a stay of the judge’s ruling and asked that the school be allowed to keep using the holistic admissions system for the rest of the year. In reality, of course, the school board hopes to keep the discriminatory system in place long enough to appeal the decision—and then indefinitely after that. 

The past two years have shown us that the Coalition for TJ is more than prepared for the next stage of the fight. Let’s hope that Judge Hilton’s initial verdict against TJ’s racial engineering is a sign of the victory to come.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Coalition for TJ/Antonio Martin Photography

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