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High School Did Not Discriminate Against Asian American Students, Court Rules

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled on Tuesday in favor of a new admissions process at one of the most prestigious public high schools in the country, and found that it had not discriminated against Asian American students in its admissions policies.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Va., had replaced the admissions exam with an essay and began admitting students from a cross-section of schools, with weight given to poorer students and those learning English.

The appellate court, in a 2 to 1 ruling, found that there was not sufficient evidence that the changes were adopted with discriminatory intent.

Writing for the majority, Judge Robert B. King, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, said that the school, widely known as T.J., had a legitimate interest in “expanding the array of student backgrounds.”

The decision reversed a 2022 decision by Judge Claude M. Hilton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, who found that the changes made by the high school had disproportionately burdened Asian American students.

The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.Kenny Holston for The New York Times

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, but the Thomas Jefferson case could break new ground.

The high school’s new admissions criterion never even mentions race, but the lawsuit challenges the use of race-neutral “proxies.”

“They are, in our view, using proxies for race in order to get a racial result,” said Joshua P. Thompson, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that is helping parents, many of them Asian American, with their lawsuit.

The high school applauded the decision. “We firmly believe this admission plan is fair and gives qualified applicants at every middle school a fair chance of a seat at T.J.,” said John Foster, division counsel for the Fairfax County Public Schools.

In late 2020, officials in Fairfax County, Va., were concerned about the negligible number of Black and Hispanic students at the school and changed admissions standards at Thomas Jefferson High School, which draws students from across Northern Virginia.

As a result, the percentage of Black students grew to 7 percent from 1 percent of the class, while the number of Asian American students fell to 54 percent from 73 percent, the lowest share in years.

A group of parents, many of them Asian American, objected to the new plan and started the Coalition for T.J. The coalition filed a lawsuit with the help of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has filed similar lawsuits in New York and Montgomery County, Md.

The ruling was widely expected, and the case is likely now headed to a review at the Supreme Court.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the T.J. case would be the next step in ending any consideration of race — in this case by using proxies such as ZIP codes or income — to boost racial equity through education and other public programs.

In a forthcoming paper in the Stanford Law Review, Sonja B. Starr, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago, writes that the plaintiffs are “laying the groundwork for a much bigger legal transformation” that could ban any public policy effort to close racial gaps.

Ms. Starr predicted in an interview that the T.J. case could ultimately reverberate in areas beyond education, such as fair housing, environmental permitting and social welfare policies.

Campbell Robertson contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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