Where is “merit” a dirty word, and work ethic considered “toxic”? Increasingly, in America’s top public middle and high schools. 

These specialized schools, such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Fairfax County, Virginia, are intended to provide a challenging learning environment for the most academically gifted students. Schools like TJ often include specially trained staff, advanced laboratories, and unique hands-on opportunities not available in standard public high schools. In years past, TJ relied on an admissions test to choose the most qualified students. Recently, however, racial balancing, not merit, has become the priority for TJ admissions.  

TJ’s student population is already incredibly diverse at 79% minority and 21% white. However, according to Fairfax County school officials, TJ is the wrong kind of diverse because most of its minority students are Asian-American, not black or Hispanic. Instead of celebrating the hard work and sacrifice required to earn a spot at TJ, school officials bemoan the “toxic” culture of high expectations and dedication to pursuing educational opportunities, and question the motives of Asian-American students and their families. 

With equity as their battle cry, Fairfax County is on a mission to make the demographics of TJ match those of the surrounding community. Standing in their way? The color-blind TJ admissions test that selected students based on merit.

In a move that blindsided parents and students, the Fairfax County School Board voted in October to eliminate the admissions test that for years served as the way for exceptional 8th-graders to earn a place at TJ. The school board has yet to decide what will replace the test, but based on the school district’s obsession with TJ’s racial makeup, it’s likely that skin color and not merit will play a major role in the new admissions process. 

TJ is not the first selective high school to fall victim to racial balancing, and it won’t be the last. This fall, San Francisco’s Lowell High School and the three Boston exam schools announced they’d be dropping their merit-based admissions exams for the upcoming year. Though both schools claim the move is a temporary measure due to COVID-19, it comes after years of activism urging school officials to racially balance their schools and do away with race-blind admissions tests that operate only on merit.

Admissions tests weren’t always viewed as a barrier keeping black and Hispanic kids out of specialized public schools. At a town hall meeting in New York City last year, Bronx resident Lisa Benton stood up and told the story of her uncle, a child of sharecroppers who in 1932 took the admissions test for New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School. He passed, but when school officials found out he was black, they made him take the test again. Lisa’s uncle passed a second time. “They had no choice but to let him attend,” Lisa told the cheering town hall crowd. When racism was faced with undeniable merit, merit won. 

But now merit is under threat. While today it is often the children of Chinese immigrants competing for entry into Stuyvesant High School or one of New York City’s other elite high schools, the dream of education as a path out of poverty and toward success remains the same. But claiming that no one ethnic group “owns” admission to New York City’s Specialized High Schools, New York City officials recently enacted changes to make it harder for Asian-American students, and only Asian-American students, to be accepted into these elite schools.

Dream Factories showcases how New York’s Specialized High Schools provide a path up for hardworking students.

Similarly, school boards in Boston, San Francisco, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Northern Virginia are reevaluating admissions tests and searching for ways to manipulate application procedures to ensure the “right” racial mix of students. This racial balancing is nothing more than a quota system, albeit a hidden one, and the bad outcomes of quotas are no secret. In Connecticut, for example, racial quotas at world-class magnet schools resulted in school closures and empty seats despite waiting lists, because the children on the waiting lists had the wrong color skin. Very soon, America’s elite public school may no longer be places for the best and brightest, regardless of their race. Instead, racial considerations may permeate every step of the admissions process. 

Despite these trends, many parents still believe in the value of hard work and the importance of judging a person on merit, not skin color. Together with Pacific Legal Foundation, parents are fighting in Connecticut, New York City, and Montgomery County, Maryland, to enforce the Constitution’s promise of equal protection for all citizens, regardless of race. Merit and hard work are not dirty words; they are the path to educational opportunity for everyone, whether a son of Black sharecroppers in 1932 or children of Chinese immigrants in 2020.