A former Wall Street Journal correspondent, Asra Q. Nomani is an author, codirector of the Pearl Project, cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement, and vice president of strategy and investigations at Parents Defending Education. She spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
Could you tell us about Thomas Jefferson High School, Fairfax County Public Schools’ changes to the admissions process, and what the Coalition for TJ is trying to accomplish?
The battle over admissions to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, ranked the number one school in the United States, is a battle for the American Dream. It’s a struggle to protect the ideas of merit, hard work, and educational excellence. A year ago, in summer 2020, a brave group of mostly immigrant parents, with names like Yuyan Zhou, Suparna Dutta, and Himanshu Verma, formed Coalition for TJ to defend not only our children’s school but also America against ideologues and activists intent on destroying the core of education and excellence in this nation.
Like the parents of many other students and alumni of TJ, I came to the United States as an immigrant. My family arrived from India in the 1960s, with dollars to our name. About seven of ten TJ students are of Asian descent, about two of ten are white, and about one of ten is black, Hispanic, or multiracial. We all agree that that last number is too low, but we disagree about how to increase it. At Coalition for TJ, we believe that the school system must address its decades of failure and fix the pipeline to TJ, one that our families also struggled to traverse.
Unfortunately, in the name of “social justice,” bureaucrats and activists decided, in December 2020, to replace TJ’s merit-based, race-blind admissions with a “holistic” process that is essentially a subjective popularity contest and a zip-code quota system.
What effect has the elimination of the merit-based admissions test had on the makeup of this year’s class? Who are its beneficiaries?
School district officials announced that, as a result of their new admissions system, they had slashed the percentage of Asian students admitted to TJ to 54 percent this year, from 73 percent last year. The percentage of blacks and Hispanics increased—as it also did for white students.
This is a purge against Asian-American students by Fairfax County Public Schools. The school district illegally made race a factor in the decisions.
This spring, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board, arguing that the new admission standards violate our children’s constitutional right to equal protection. We go to court on Friday, September 17, for initial proceedings. This past May, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton rejected the school district’s request to dismiss the case. “Everybody knows the policy is not race-neutral,” he declared, “and that it’s designed to affect the racial composition of the school.”
Our battle in northern Virginia is happening elsewhere, too—in San Francisco, New York City, and Boston. Under the cover of fighting against discrimination and injustice, activists are launching a new era of discrimination and injustice. It’s up to parents to stand up against this abuse of power.
You’re involved with another group, Parents Defending Education, aimed at combating political indoctrination in the classroom. Could you tell us about that work?
The fight at my son’s school made an accidental educational activist out of me. It connected me with amazing parents around the country. Earlier this year, I joined forces with Nicole Neilly, Erika Sanzi, Marissa Fallon, and other mothers and fathers to launch Parents Defending Education to help empower other parents, expose the indoctrination that is happening in schools, and engage with leaders to restore education. This puts us in the crosshairs of a well-funded, well-organized network of activists, ideologues, and academics who are hell-bent on “disrupting” education by infusing schools with their political and ideological agendas. These activists are pitting students against each other by dividing them into categories of “oppressed” and “oppressor,” separating students based on race, and creating a new hierarchy of human value that is bigoted, cruel, and racist.
What’s at stake in this battle?
We are in an existential struggle for the future of our country’s children—and the future of America. On the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let me give you an example of how this threat plays out.
On August 27, the Virginia Department of Education posted a webinar on its official YouTube channel, in which a local educator, Amaarah DeCuir, a lecturer at American University, instructed teachers not to call the 9/11 hijackers “terrorists” but instead to call them “extremists,” without any discussion of Islamic extremism. She also advised them to avoid any discussion of “American exceptionalism,” instructing them instead to focus on “anti-Muslim racism.” As a Muslim reformer, I call this woke-washing.
She said, “We’re also not going to reproduce what’s understood as American exceptionalism—this understanding that America is a land at the top of a beautiful mountain and that all other countries, nations, and people are less than America.”
Parents in Virginia shared the video with us at Parents Defending Education, expressing deep concern about the historical revisionism in the lesson guidelines and the insensitivity of the speaker and the state agency to the history of the 9/11 attacks. After we pushed back, the Virginia Department of Education removed the webinar from its official YouTube channel. But the agency is still sharing DeCuir’s PowerPoint presentation as part of its “EdEquity VA” webinar series. And at a recent Fairfax County school board meeting, board member Abrar Omeish recommended that the school district’s chief diversity officer use DeCuir’s recommendations to guide lessons about 9/11. Omeish then voted against a resolution honoring the victims of 9/11. Her father is a leader at the local mosque, called the “9/11 mosque,” where the hijackers prayed. Parents, including me, watched these remarks, horrified.
In the hall, a mother stood up and yelled, away from the microphone, “It’s a sham!”
On this issue, too, we sounded the alarm, sharing the video of the board member’s disturbing arguments. And we shared the voice of the parent. We must give parents not just the microphone but a bullhorn. This is a fight for America itself. We all need to stand up and raise our voices.