Magnet School’s Student Admissions Policy Revised, in Part, to Increase Diversity, Faces Legal Challenges and Might be the Next DEI Case Before the Supreme Court

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Magnet School’s Student Admissions Policy Revised, in Part, to Increase Diversity, Faces Legal Challenges and Might be the Next DEI Case Before the Supreme Court

Sep 13, 2023

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On the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s use of race in their college student admissions programs, on August 14, 2023, a group of Virginia area parents asked the Supreme Court to hear their complaints regarding the revised student admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (locally known as “TJ”).

TJ, a prestigious magnet school in Virginia, is often ranked as one of the best high schools in the country. Black and Hispanic students were significantly underrepresented at TJ for decades and in 2020 TJ revised its admissions process, in part, to boost diversity.

TJ’s revised admissions process replaced a standardized test and a $100 application fee with a process that allocates a percentage of seats from every area middle school that feeds into TJ and takes four “experience factors” into considerations when deciding whether to admit a student: income status, English-speaking ability, whether the applicant has a disability and whether the applicant comes from a historically underrepresented school. The admissions process also requires all applicants to achieve an unweighted 3.5 grade point average while taking higher level courses.

As a result of the revised admissions policy, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students increased. Black student admissions increased from 1% to 7% and Hispanic student representation increased from 3% to 11%. Asian student admissions, however, decreased from 73% to 54%, prompting this lawsuit by a group of student parents. In February 2022, a federal district judge sided with the parents stating that the admissions process was “racial balancing” and “patently unconstitutional.” TJ appealed the judge’s decision and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, granted the school’s request to continue using the revised admissions system while the parties litigated the merits of the issues. The parents group, not happy with the decision allowing TJ to continue using the new admissions policy petitioned the United States Supreme Court for emergency action requesting reinstatement of the District Court’s decision invalidating the new admissions policy and a prohibition against continued use of the policy. While the Supreme Court declined the parents’ request for an emergency ruling, three of the seven justices on the Court indicated that they disagreed with the Fourth Circuit’s decision to allow TJ to continue using the revised admissions process. Both parties appear to agree that TJ’s revised admissions policy relies upon factors that are race neutral. However, the parents claim that the race neutral criteria are merely “race-based proxies,” and that the admissions policy is designed to achieve “racial balancing.” On August 23, 2023, the parent coalition again petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision (on a non-emergency basis) asserting the case merits review because “it presents a question of national importance that the Court has yet to answer directly,” what criteria can be used to increase diversity in competitive K-12 admissions.

It is clear that the use of DEI initiatives in both education and employment are increasingly being challenged as unlawful after the Supreme Court’s Harvard decision. The Harvard case has created a flood of litigation going beyond the issue of using race in college student admission decisions, to attacking any use of DEI initiatives and practices.

Robbins Schwartz’ DEI Compliance practice area is well staffed to assist clients. Partner Frank B. Garrett III, head of Robbins Schwartz DEI Compliance practice area, holds a Leading Diversity and Inclusion certificate from Northwestern University. Reach out to Frank with any questions or to discuss how Robbins Schwartz can help.