Sacrificing Academic Excellence on the Altar of ‘Equity’

One of the four dissenting judges in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, which resulted in the allowance of race quotas in student admissions, was Justice Clarence Thomas, a descendant of slaves and himself a beneficiary of affirmative action. Outraged by the patronizing attitude of teachers and classmates, and driven by the values of hard work, merit, and pride instilled in him by his grandfather, he had come to believe, over the course of his inspiring life, that quotas are demeaning.

“The Constitution abhors classifications based on race,” he wrote in his dissenting opinion, “not only because these classifications can harm favored races, or are based in illegitimate motives, but also because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provisions of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.”

Against such eminent good sense, a deranged ‘woke’ agenda of diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) is sweeping the country. This obsession with victimhood, with its unending demand for compensatory benefits, erodes self-respect and self-reliance, and perpetuates a culture of expecting and making do with government handouts and hand-me-downs. It is the antithesis of the pursuit of excellence.

DIE policies are also threatening to destroy America — traditionally a powerhouse of innovation — by destroying top public schools that nurture the talent, merit, and persistence of the gifted and inspire creativity and imagination. The race-blind admission requirements of these schools — standardized entrance exams, high GPAs, and a record of rigorous coursework — are under attack from the false narrative that they are designed to exclude racial minorities and that merit per se is racist.

DIE policies care more about favoring certain identity groups, based on skin color and socioeconomic status, than about excellence. (Strangely, the minority Asian-Americans — who have achieved success through hard work and commitment to education — are considered privileged, and therefore, “conditionally white.”) This reverse discrimination excludes gifted, high-scoring non-minority applicants, dilutes standards, and defeats the purpose of these centers of excellence. It also undermines the confidence of ‘quota’ students, who may be unprepared for the rigor of top academic institutions. Force-fitting them in these institutions, in the name of equality of outcome, is counterproductive, both for the students and for the schools.

Community members, parents, and alumni have initiated legal action against such practices. In some cases, staff have also joined the fight. At one school — Lowell High School in San Francisco — they were fortunate to avoid long-drawn out court proceedings. But verdicts are pending for schools in Fairfax County, VA; New York City; and Boston.

At Lowell High, the San Francisco Board of Education ended merit-based admissions in 2020 and rushed through a lottery system. Notice of the change was inadequate, so there was little input from the community. The 33,000-member Lowell Alumni Association sued the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), demanding a return to academics-based admissions. In 2021, a judge ruled that the education board had failed to follow state law. Earlier this year, following the ouster of three board members in a recall election, the board voted 4-3 to return to merit-based admissions.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), in Fairfax County, VA, is a top-rated magnet school. Also classified as a Virginia Governor’s School, it is geared towards teaching gifted, advanced learners, identified through a race-blind competitive exam, completion of advanced math classes, and teacher recommendations. In 2020, Fairfax’s school board decided to “balance racial groups” at TJ by eliminating the test and honors-class requirements. Applicants received bonus points if their schools were underrepresented at TJ and for socioeconomic disadvantages.

Last year, the Coalition for TJ challenged those changes in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), which defends constitutional rights against government overreach, represented the coalition. Judge Claude Hilton ruled that the board had violated the law; he ordered that the new admission policy be abandoned. 

On the board’s appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Judge Hilton’s order on March 1, pending a Supreme Court ruling. But his words ring true. The purpose of the new policy, he had said, “was to change the racial makeup of TJ to the detriment of Asian Americans,” as emails and text messages between board members confirmed; racial balancing for its own sake was “patently unconstitutional.” Since the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the PLF has petitioned the Fourth Circuit Court to overturn the decision, arguing that it violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A decision is expected by year-end.

In New York City, eight top ‘specialized’ high schools — including the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant High School, and Brooklyn Technical High School — admit most students based on an entrance exam. Offers turned down by potential students go to low-income students who fall short of the cutoff score, provided they successfully complete remedial coursework. In the past, such students have comprised less than 5% of admissions. But in 2018, mayor Bill de Blasio raised that to a mandatory 20%, limiting it to schools with a 60% or higher poverty rate — schools with mostly Black and Hispanic students.

The Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School, a primarily Asian middle school with a 55% poverty rate, was thus excluded from such admissions. The PLF, representing the school, Asian-American groups, and other plaintiffs, sued the ex-mayor and the chancellor of education. Clearly, de Blasio and other officials wanted to boost Black and Hispanic enrollment at the expense of other races, and this violates the equal protection clause. The case is pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Boston, the Boston Latin School, the Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science have always admitted students who clear competitive entrance exams. In 2020, the exams were dropped, introducing zip-code-based quotas spread across eight socioeconomic levels. Now, fewer Whites and Asians, and more Blacks and Latinos, are being admitted. The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence challenged the changes, which it says are discriminatory and violate the equal protection clause. The district court ruled in favor of the Boston Public Schools. The PLF is now appealing the ruling, on the basis that school admissions cannot be manipulated to achieve desired racial outcomes.

In Maryland, the race-blind admission process for Montgomery county’s magnet program for gifted middle-school students was revised in 2015 following a study aimed at making them “equitable.” Instead of ranking all candidates by their absolute test scores, each would be ranked against the scores of candidates from schools with similar poverty levels. Students from schools with more “high achieving academic peers” stood a lesser chance of selection than those from schools with fewer high-achievers. The Association for Educational Fairness, represented by PLF, argued in court that this was unfair to Asian-American students, who attend a handful of high-performing schools. A federal district court dismissed the case in August, but the bigger battle – for excellence and against DIE – continues.

Two cases in the Supreme Court involving universities — Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard College and Students for Fair Admission v. University of North Carolina — are seeking that Grutter v. Bollinger, the case in which Justice Thomas vehemently dissented, be overruled. They argue that race-based admissions violate the equal protection law, and that diversity must be achieved through race-neutral means. The case briefs cite what has happened at some of the aforementioned schools. A decision is awaited next June. An overruling of Grutter v. Bollinger could set the precedent for banning race-based admissions at all levels.

The immoral and unconstitutional use of skin color or ethnicity in admissions to educational institutions is no cure for academic disparities. It jeopardizes freedom of opportunity. It discourages the pursuit of excellence. It demeans its beneficiaries and those it excludes. It must go.

Image: Free image, Pixabay license, no attribution required.

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