In February, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board, a case that concerned a change in admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Alexandria, Virginia. After the new policy took effect, the share of Asian students admitted to TJ, one of the nation’s top public high schools, dropped by nearly 20 percentage points from the previous year. The share of white, black, and Hispanic students, by contrast, increased. As it turns out, this had been the goal of education officials in Fairfax County all along. At an October 2020 meeting, TJ’s own principal revealed that she wanted a “student body that more closely aligns with the representation in Fairfax County Public Schools.”

Justice Samuel Alito described the majority’s refusal to hear the case as “hard to understand.” In 2007’s Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, the Supreme Court held that a school district’s interest in racial balancing could not justify the district’s use of race in selecting students for admission to public high schools. In 2023’s Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the court struck down the use of racial preferences in college admissions. Neither decision, however, addressed admissions policies that—like TJ’s—are race-neutral on their face but race-conscious in aim and effect. Thus, “TJ offers a roadmap,” Alito warned, “for other selective schools to skirt the Equal Protection Clause.”

The Supreme Court has a second chance to remind education officials that “eliminating discrimination means eliminating all of it,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Students for Fair Admissions. Last month, the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence—a group of parents and students who support merit-based admissions and improving K–6 education—asked the justices to examine the 2021–22 admissions policy for Boston’s three selective public high schools. This policy, while facially race-neutral, diminished the share of white students (from 33 percent to 24 percent) and Asian students (from 21 percent to 16 percent) at Boston Latin School (BLS), Boston Latin Academy (BLA), and John O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science (O’Bryant). As in Fairfax County, the Boston School Committee adopted the new admissions policy because it believed Asians (and whites) were “overrepresented.”

For years, admission to BLS, BLA, and O’Bryant was based on a student’s grades in English language arts and math, along with the student’s score on a standardized test similar in nature to the SAT/ACT. Education officials in Boston would combine each applicant’s grades and test results into a “composite score” and offer admission to those with the highest scores.

But in the winter of 2020, the school committee—troubled by the fact that black and Latino students made up 75 percent of students at Boston Public Schools but only 40 percent of the student bodies at the three exam schools—voted to overhaul the admissions process. The new policy, intended for the 2021–22 school year, eliminated the entrance exam (admissions are now based solely on GPA) and replaced the citywide competition with a zip code quota. Applicants with the highest GPAs receive 20 percent of the offers at each school, while the remaining 80 percent of offers are dispersed among the city’s zip codes, depending on the number of school-age children who live there. Competition for these seats takes place exclusively within each zip code.

After the new policy took effect, it became much more difficult for white and Asian students to win a seat at BLS, BLA, or O’Bryant. In zip codes where the population was at least 55 percent white and Asian, the average GPA (on a 12-point scale) of admittees ranged from 10.32 to 11.56. However, in neighborhoods where the population was at least 55 percent black and Latino, the average GPA of admittees ranged from 9.51 to 10.67.

In changing the selective schools’ admissions policies, education officials in Boston appeared to be strongly motivated by racialism. Samuel Acevedo, a co-chair of BPS’ Opportunity and Achievement Gap Task Force, described the new policy’s purpose as “rectifying historic racial inequities afflicting exam school admissions for generations.” Meanwhile, school committee chair Michael Loconto was forced to resign after being caught on a hot mic ridiculing the names of Chinese-American parents who had come to a school board meeting to speak out against the new policy.

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence sued Boston Public Schools on behalf of several white and Asian student-members who would have been admitted to BLS, BLA, or O’Bryant under the old, citywide process but were denied admission under the zip code quota. This policy, the coalition argued, was a thinly veiled attempt to balance the schools’ student bodies racially, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The coalition, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm, lost in both the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the First Circuit Court of Appeals. On April 17, the group appealed the First Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court.

It’s unclear whether the high court will hear the appeal, especially given that it denied Coalition for TJ certiorari not long ago. Some of the justices might be concerned that taking up another case on racial preferences so soon after Students for Fair Admissions will lead to unrest. Yet, this concern does not outweigh the significance of the case itself. In ruling against the Boston parents, the First Circuit turned decades of U.S. Equal Protection law on its head. Indeed, it held that, though the 2021–22 admissions policy for Boston’s selective schools led to a decline in whites and Asians, these groups were not disparately impacted because they were still overrepresented relative to their shares of the overall student population in Boston Public Schools. The Fourth Circuit advanced the same argument in its April 2023 ruling against Coalition for TJ. (The Fourth Circuit held that, because Asians still made up a majority of TJ students, the school’s new admissions policy did not discriminate against them.)

Such a reading of the Equal Protection Clause would deem racial balancing constitutional. In his dissent from the majority’s denial of certiorari in Coalition for TJ, Justice Alito noted that it “effectively licenses official actors to discriminate against any racial group with impunity as long as that group continues to perform at a higher rate than other groups,” and that it “defies law and logic.” If the Supreme Court does not intervene, then the Fourth and First Circuits’ bizarre reinterpretation of “disparate impact” will stand.

The Court should also intervene to stop, once and for all, efforts by education officials to limit the number of Asian students at selective schools and elite colleges. One of the most peculiar aspects of the discussion surrounding Students for Fair Admissions has been elites’ reluctance to frame the case as one of anti-Asian discrimination. As journalist Jay Caspian Kang observed in The New Yorker last June: “Both the courts and media have mostly ignored the Asian plaintiffs and chosen, instead, to relitigate the same arguments about merit, white supremacy, and privilege.”

The recent court challenges to selective schools’ admissions policies seek to set the record straight. They call on the courts to acknowledge that hostility toward Asian students is a core component of progressives’ efforts to remake American education. For example, in their appeal to the Supreme Court, the Boston parents listed official actions in New York, San Francisco, Maryland, Chicago, and Seattle to reduce the number of Asians at selective schools.

Along with Justice Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas has noticed the anti-Asian tenor of these new admissions policies. In their dissent to Coalition for TJ, they wrote:

Asian-American students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants, have often seen admission to TJ as a ticket to the American dream. In this respect, their aspirations mirror those of young people from other immigrant groups. Public magnet schools with competitive admissions based on standardized tests have served as engines of social mobility by providing unique opportunities for minorities and the children of immigrants, and these students’ subsequent careers have in turn richly contributed to our country’s success.

The stakes in these cases are high—nothing short of the American Dream itself. This time around, maybe more of the justices will recognize that.

Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


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