Fairfax County Superintendent Who Ended Merit-Based Admissions at Top High School Resigning

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand, who abolished the entrance exam at the acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), will leave his post at the end of the coming academic year.
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Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand, who abolished the entrance exam at the acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), will leave his post at the end of the coming academic year.

An announcement released Thursday noted some of Brabrand’s accomplishments since being named FCPS superintendent in 2017, including “embedding an equity focus throughout the division,” and “broadening access to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for students with an aptitude and passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).”

A coalition of parents, students, alumni, staff, and members of the community filed a lawsuit in March that challenged the end of merit-based admissions to TJ, which was originally established as a magnet school for gifted students. About 70 percent of TJ’s student body had been of Asian descent.

According to the Washington Free Beacon, Alleigh Marré, president of the Free to Learn Coalition, said Brabrand’s resignation is a sign that parent organizations have been successful in challenging the new policy.

“Brabrand’s resignation shows us that various parent groups who have been very active in Fairfax County have had an impact,” Marré said. “Those parents have been active and loud and are being heard.”

Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), which represents the coalition, noted in a press release:

Until this year, admission to TJ was race-blind and merit-based; requirements included a standardized test, grade-point average, completion of certain math classes, and teacher recommendations. This year, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ board and superintendent adopted an admissions policy aimed at balancing the racial groups at TJ by eliminating the admissions test and capping the number of students allowed from each of the district’s 23 middle schools. The intended result: dramatically reducing the number of Asian-American students admitted to TJ.

“TJ’s attempts at racial balancing are not only illegal, but they also harm the children they’re supposedly trying to help,” said PLF attorney Erin Wilcox. “The government cannot choose who receives the opportunity to attend public schools based on race or ethnicity. Such actions clearly violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.”

At the end of May, Judge Claude Hilton, a Ronald Reagan appointee, refused FCPS’s request to dismiss the case.

PLF noted:

Although the School Board claims the admissions policy changes are race-neutral and intended only to increase diversity at TJ, as the school is commonly known, Judge Hilton was skeptical: “Everybody knows the policy is not race-neutral, and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school,” he said. “You can say all sorts of beautiful things while you’re doing others.”

TJ parent Asra Q. Nomani co-authored an op-ed published at the Washington Post July 2 and titled “The Purge of Asian American Students at Thomas Jefferson High School Has Begun.”

“Over the past year, TJ and Fairfax County Public Schools officials have systematically set out to reduce the number of Asian American students at the highly regarded high school — and based on the most recent admissions data, their purge is succeeding,” she observed, adding:

[T]his past year, school leaders bemoaned a lack of “diversity” at TJ and launched a crusade to change admissions. The student body is about 80 percent minority, but the wrong kind of minority for school officials, with about 70 percent Asian and about 10 percent of the minority students Black, Hispanic and multiracial.

Last fall, district leaders set out to change that by re-engineering the school’s famously strict and competitive admission standards. Tossing the merit-based, race-blind admissions exam and other rigorous standards, they instituted a “holistic” admissions process with quotas and subjective criteria, such as “experience factors,” that would allow them to achieve a more “equitable” and desirable racial balance at TJ.

In September 2020, Brabrand defended his recommendations to the Fairfax County School Board to revise the admissions policy at TJ in a news release:

We have been working to understand why the talent at TJHSST does not reflect the talent in FCPS. We believe there has been overreliance upon the current admissions test, which tends to reflect upon the socioeconomic background of test takers or the ability for students to obtain private test preparation instead of students’ true academic potential. This can discourage potential candidates from applying or advancing to the pool of semifinalists.

“TJ must reflect the diversity, equity, and inclusiveness that is core to the mission and values of Fairfax County Public Schools,” Brabrand added. “We have outlined a new admission process that will accomplish that, and we look forward to the input and feedback of students, families, and citizens that will help shape our work going forward.”

The case is Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board, No. 1:21-cv-00296 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia

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