From the near-universal hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic to the recent surge in anti-Asian racism and violence, it has been a particularly difficult year for Asian Americans. In the midst of this, some anti-equity activists have sought to capitalize on Asian marginalization to score political points. One area in particular where Asian marginalization has been used to scuttle progress is the opposition to policies seeking to improve education equity. In the case of New York City’s Community Education Councils, for example, these efforts culminated in election results widely seen as a rejection of proposals to integrate schools through admissions reform.
As an alumnus of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Fairfax County, Virginia—currently ranked #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report—I have a front-row seat to this debate as it engulfs my alma mater and other competitive public high schools. Enraged by ongoing racial injustice and a persistent lack of equal access to educational opportunity, I joined the TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG).
TJAAG is a committed group of volunteers from diverse backgrounds: Black, Latinx, Asian, White, Indigenous, mixed-race, women, men, parents and non-parents, married and single, immigrants and non-immigrants, native speakers and English language learners, and lived experiences across the socioeconomic spectrum. What unites us is our vision of an equitable, inclusive education for all children in Northern Virginia. Similar organizations, including alumni of prestigious public schools from Richmond to New York to Boston to San Francisco and beyond, are advocating with varying success for meaningful reform at America’s most selective public schools.
Last year, the Fairfax County School Board made the courageous decision to abolish the entrance exam and application fee for TJ and introduce a more holistic admissions process that used minimum GPA and advanced math requirements instead. As a result, TJ’s Class of 2025 is the most representative in memory for many underrepresented groups including girls, low-income students, Black students, Hispanic students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
The idea that any disruption to the status quo would harm Asians is a false narrative. One of the most insidious forms of anti-Asian racism that persists is the treatment of an extraordinarily diverse group of people as a monolith. Opponents to reform position themselves as the mouthpiece for the entire Asian American community, but they do not speak for all of us. Especially not people like me.
Although I graduated from TJ in 2015, I know firsthand some of the struggles underrepresented students face in seeking admission. I was raised by a single mother who spoke little to no English, had not attended college, and worked as a cashier for a living. I often missed extracurricular opportunities due to financial constraints or my mother’s work schedule. She did not know the ins and outs of our education system, and even opted me out of the gifted and talented program in third grade because she did not understand it. People like me have historically had an uphill battle to gain admission to and succeed at schools like TJ.
The argument that a test or other demonstrably preppable admissions system gives every hard-working student a fair chance at admission is not borne out by the data. Moreover, it ignores the luck inherent in the existing system. It ignores each applicant’s circumstances, including home environment, income, and access to education resources—none of which an eighth-grade child built for themself.
The previous admissions system at TJ skewed its enrollment away from students from low-income households. While in a typical year only about 2 percent of TJ students are economically disadvantaged, 30 percent of students in Fairfax County Public Schools are. But the recent reforms seem well on their way to righting this wrong: the proportion of economically disadvantaged students who were offered admittance to TJ skyrocketed, from an embarrassingly low 0.62 percent last year to over 25 percent this year. As a former student in that category myself, I want to lift the voices and fight for the rights of those people—including students of Asian descent—who benefit from equity-minded admissions changes. Our perspectives are too often drowned out or missing entirely from conversations about education access because we often lack the institutional knowledge, political connections, and English literacy to be heard. The same obstacles that hamper our access to elite education prevent many of us from even engaging in the debate about its future.
Advocates on any side of the debate must not forget Asian diversity, including the spectrum of differing opinions on how best to achieve education equity. Those who dismiss serious attempts to improve education access and inclusion ignore Asians like me because we do not fit into their zero-sum narrative. But Americans of Asian descent who also happen to be low-income or female or have a disability or speak English as a second language or face any of the many other barriers to accessing a school like TJ deserve to be a part of the conversation. It is the responsibility of all Americans who want to improve public education to ensure we are not forgotten.