Virginia school board wins appeal over diversity policy

Snow falls over school buses parked at Great Falls Elementary School in Great Falls, Virginia,
Snow falls over school buses parked at Great Falls Elementary School in Great Falls, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, January 28, 2011. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

May 23 (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday upheld an admissions policy aimed at diversifying a highly selective Virginia high school, rejecting arguments that it discriminated against Asian-American students.

The Richmond-based 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Fairfax County School Board did not intend to discriminate against Asian-Americans when it overhauled its admissions policy for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in 2020.

The Fairfax County school board adopted its policy following concerns about a lack of racial diversity at the school in Alexandria, Virginia, which ranks among the best U.S. public high schools. The board scrapped standardized test requirements and guaranteed slots for students at each eligible middle school.

A parents group called Coalition for TJ claimed the policy was an unconstitutional attempt to “racially balance” the school. The percentage of Asian-American students declined from 73% to 54% in the first year.

The board had a legitimate interest in “expanding the array of student backgrounds," Judge Robert King, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, wrote for the 2-1 majority.

Judge Allison Rushing, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said in a dissent that the policy “shows an undisputed racial motivation and an undeniable racial result."

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide by the end of June whether to strike down race-conscious admissions policies at U.S. colleges. Unlike the Virginia school's policy, universities involved in those cases can directly consider race in admissions decisions.

Erin Wilcox, a lawyer for the coalition with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, said she was “disappointed” by the ruling and that the group would appeal to the Supreme Court.

John Foster, a lawyer for the Fairfax County School Board, said the court "reached the correct decision."

Tuesday's ruling reverses a federal judge's decision last year that struck down the policy.

Reporting by Andrew Goudsward in Washington Editing by David Bario and Matthew Lewis

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