Asra Nomani | Asra Investigates
In fall 2020, Fairfax County, Va., school board members said the quiet part out loud.
As school district officials engineered race-based admissions changes to America’s No. 1 high school, to increase the numbers of Black and Hispanic students, school board member Abrar Omeish sent board member Stella Pekarsky a text, saying: “I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol,” using the acronym for “laughing out loud.”
Pekarsky, now the board chair, added: “They’re discriminated against in this process too.”
The messages are part of months of emails and texts made public in a federal lawsuit by Coalition for TJ, a grassroots parent group, against the Fairfax County School Board, alleging anti-Asian racism in the new admissions policy to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, ranked America’s No. 1 high school by U.S. News and World Report. Pacific Legal Foundation is representing the Coalition for TJ, and has carried the mantle courageously for parents in New York City, waging a similar battle to protect merit-based education. Our Coalition for TJ parents are inspiring folks with names like Suparna, Hemang, Glenn, Helen, Harry and Yuyan — all with complicated stories of overcoming adversity in their lives.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn has chronicled the politics in a blistering op-ed, headlined, “An Ugly Game of Race References: ‘I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol.’”
McGurn drew parallels to the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which alleges anti-Asian admissions discrimination by the Ivy League school. The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear an appeal in that case. “We’re now seeing a great divvying up by race, from federal farm aid and Covid treatments to college admissions,” McGurn wrote. “And the practice is on the rise despite polls showing that Americans—across all racial groups—oppose race preferences. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that he will rescind a directive banning state agencies from considering race or sex when hiring, even though his state’s voters in 2019 defeated a referendum aimed at restoring race preferences.”
McGurn concluded: “The question for the courts in both Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board and Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard is whether this is really the way the authors of the Constitution intended us to live.”
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton hears the TJ case in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday, January 18, at 10 a.m.
At Parents Defending Education, a national nonprofit that a group of mothers and I created early last year in the wake of shenanigans like the drama to destroy TJ, we organized the depressing and startling revelations in something we’re calling the “TJ Papers.” Much like the Pentagon Papers revealed the political corruption behind the decisions related to the Vietnam War, the TJ Papers give us a window into the corruption behind the decision to undermine America’s No. 1 school.
It’s not an easy read. It’s painful. But please read every word.
The back and forth by the board members is damning, insulting and indicting of political corruption and self-admitted racism and incompetence. It’s a window into what so parents around the country endure from corrupt school board members who make a mockery of our precious democracy. School board member Omeish said the admissions changes had an “anti asian feeling…lol,” other board members punctuating their comments with emojis and “haha,” as if justice and our kids’ futures are a laughing matter. Fairfax County school board members should all resign for their complicity in their unconstitutional racism and “embarrassing” incompetence, to quote their own words.
In their messages, school board members acknowledged they engaged in a “highly divisive, harmful public debate” that reflected an “embarrassing,” “rushed” and “demeaning” process, engineered by “shameful leadership” from the superintendent, Scott Brabrand, which one board member called “just dumb and too white” to navigate cultural issues with Asian and immigrant parents.
What’s more, school district officials laid out how they rigged the numbers so they could get the race-based results that they wanted with “bonus points” tied to for a “TJHSST Scoring Rubric.” In fact, playing with those numbers, Brabrand asked officials, “Can we go back and look at points – would 200 points be a game changer.”
The revelations underscore how important it is for parents to win the court case – not just for their children, but for the values of transparency, fairness, equality and hard work, as activists and educrats nationwide wage a war on merit, in the name of “equity” that limits opportunities for advanced academic students in a lazy bid to uplift lower-performing students.
Here is what happened. Read and weep. Then, wipe away your tears and support these brave parents — and parents everywhere, fighting to open schools and educate children with the best opportunities possible. Go to coalitionfortj.net to support the TJ parents and community or email them at coalitionforTJ@gmail.com. Sign up for free emails from Parents Defending Education at defendinged.org.
When TJ Class of 2024 admissions numbers were announced on June 1, 2020, a Democratic Virginia state senator, Scott Surovell, wrote to inform then-board chair Karen Corbett Sanders, the board had a new legislative requirement for a report, due Oct. 1, 2020, TJ’s “diversity goals.” In recent years, school demographics have been about 70 percent Asian, 20 percent White and 10 percent Black, Hispanic and multiracial.
He was “curious” about the report’s progress. Surovell’s question wasn’t benign. In 2018, in a legislative debate over TJ, one of Surovell’s witnesses, a retired Fairfax County teacher, groused about “ravenous” parents from India, who “come here however they come here,” to “only” have their children attend TJ.
At 6:21 a.m., in late September 2020, Omeish sent board colleagues an email, declaring, “To be clear, I plan to support the proposal towards greater equity, to be clearly distinguished from equality….”
In her texts, Omeish said she warned Brabrand not to say parents engage in “pay-to-play,” paying for test prep to gain admission to TJ. “Before he went down this path,” Omeish wrote, “I told him to stop it and never talk about ‘pay to play, etc.’ It is very demeaning.”
Another time, Pekarsky texted board member Megan McLaughlin: “Talking about pay to play and crap. So racist.”
The “diversity” report was a rouse. By mid-September 2020, as mostly Asian, immigrant parents held protests over a “merit lottery” admissions plan, Corbett Sanders advised Superintendent Brabrand in a Friday afternoon email to “clarify that we have a statutory requirement to submit a plan” and “reframe the discussion” to emphasize students would be selected based on “merit.”
In fact, TJ’s admissions director, Jeremy Shughart, was emailing a school district staffer, Lisa Hruda, asking if she could “provide us a review of our current weighting and whether or not this would be enough to level the playing field for our historically underrepresented groups.” Hruda said her “gut” told her to give more points to “Experience Factors,” having them total 225 points out of 1,125 points in a “TJHSST Scoring Rubric.”
On Oct. 8, 2020, McLaughlin sent board members a text to tell them she was considering admonishing the superintendent with this message: “Sadly, Scott has personally created a highly divisive, harmful public debate that was absolutely avoidable,” “incorrectly” telling the board “(and the public) that we needed to make a rushed/unvetted decision,” based on the “diversity” report.
That same day, Oct. 8, 2020, at 4:04 p.m., Sloan Presidio, soon to be named the school district’s chief academic officer, told school board member Abrar Omeish, “We don’t really have a pipeline issue because we have enough Black and Hispanic 8th grade Level 4 students (the most rigorous program we have in elementary and middle school) to fill an entire TJ class.”
The goal was simple: race-based admissions.
In another text, written in fall 2020, school board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer revealed the racial motivation behind Brabrand’s efforts, writing, “If anything I think he’s trying to be responsive to the times – BLM and a superprogressive board.”
It wasn’t lost on board member Stella Pekarsky that the district had targeted Asians, telling board member Abrar Omeish in fall 2020, “Brabrand believes in getting attention. This is how he screwed up TJ and the Asians hate us.”
Omeish responded, “I thought he was just dumb and too white,” to understand.
After the damage had been done, board member McLaughlin wrote to a constituent at 11:08 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, saying, “I feel Supt Brabrand’s flawed operational proposals have greatly contributed to tonight’s embarrassing process.” But nonetheless she voted for gutting America’s No. 1 school. None of the 12 members of the board, all endorsed by the Democratic Party, stopped this “embarrassing process.”
If brave parents weren’t fighting this injustice, we may never have gotten this education in modern-day racism, corruption and incompetence. And, even if we must go to the U.S. Supreme Court, we will make sure everyone learns this lesson, so we can correct the wrongs perpetuated as public officials snickered “lol.”
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, cofounder of Coalition for TJ and vice president of Parents Defending Education. Follow her on Twitter: @AsraNomani.