Supreme Court Declines to Hear Challenge to Race-Conscious Secondary School Admissions Policy

On February 20, 2024, the Supreme Court denied the Petitioners’ request for a writ of certiorari in Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board.  This denial followed the Court’s recent decisions striking down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University, in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard SFFA, and a similar case from the University of North Carolina.  Some expected the Court to seize this opportunity to prohibit similar admissions criteria in secondary schooling.  Such a determination, however, is reserved for now.  Because its model has escaped scrutiny from the Supreme Court, the policy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (“Thomas Jefferson HS”) may very well become a model for K-12 institutions that want to diversify their student body without protracted legal challenges or drawing the ire of the Supreme Court.

Thomas Jefferson HS – a public magnet school based in Alexandria, Virginia which draws its student body from Fairfax County and adjacent communities – has long been considered one of the most prestigious and competitive secondary schools in the nation.  In 2020, in an apparent attempt to increase the enrollment of Black and Latinx students, the school significantly amended its admissions process.  Among other things, the school stopped requiring a $100 application fee and standardized test scores and opted instead to consider more holistic “life experience” factors, such as a student’s eligibility for free- or reduced-cost lunch, a student’s status as an English language learner, and whether the student attended a “historically underrepresented” public middle school.  The applicant’s name, sex, race, and ethnicity still remained hidden to admissions staff.

By all accounts, the overhaul had the intended effect.  However, while the revised admissions criteria substantially boosted the school’s Black and Latinx enrollment, the Asian-American enrollment fell from approximately 73 to 54 percent.  Petitioners, a parents’ group, sued the school board alleging that the new admissions criteria violated the Equal Protection Clause.  U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton agreed and issued an order precluding the use of the new criteria.  In 2022, the Fourth Circuit reversed this holding determining that because the admissions policy did not consider race explicitly, it was constitutional unless the challengers could demonstrate that either the policy disproportionately affected the Asian-American community, or that the School Board adopted the policy with a discriminatory purpose.  The Fourth Circuit found that the Petitioners’ lacked sufficient evidence to support either finding.

The Court considered the Petitioners’ application in five separate conferences before ultimately denying the writ, with three justices dissenting from the denial.  Justice Alito authored the dissent and argued that the Court’s denial may “serve as a blueprint for evading” Students for Fair Admissions.  The dissent explicitly noted that the deans of several prominent universities have “openly advocated for schools to emulate [Thomas Jefferson HS]’s admissions model.”  School districts across the country are actively pursuing options to foster racial integration in their schools. And as a potential admissions model for secondary and higher education institutions that actually passes constitutional muster (for now), Thomas Jefferson HS will likely fuel the continuation of the ongoing legal saga in race-conscious admissions policies generally for some time to come.  Whether the Supreme Court will have the occasion to establish clearer or stricter guidance for race-conscious admissions policies remains to be seen.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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