Sunday, May 31, 2009

More Dreams Deferred

Over the last decade or so, the courts have chipped away at affirmative action programs in a whole host of areas. The cases which have gotten the most attention have been those which involve college admissions. This is no surprise, since no country places a greater faith in the power of educational opportunity than this one.

Using race/ethnicity as one among several criteria for college admissions became a way of leveling the educational playing field for under-represented groups on campus. It acknowledged that certain groups of people faced steeper obstacles getting into college than others. The courts, however, began more and more to disagree with that rationale.

So ten years ago, officials in Texas came up with an interesting solution to the dilemma. They created a mechanism through which the top 10% of the graduating class from every Texas high school would, more or less, be guaranteed a spot in one of the state's Tier 1 institutions. Underneath this entirely race-blind quota system was the deeply unhappy truth that public education is so thoroughly segregated in Texas that the enrollment of minorities in those Tier 1 universities would go up dramatically.

And it did, and the Texas model seemed to offer a way of providing access to higher education while neatly skirting the increasingly sticky discussion of race and affirmative action.

Until now. The Times reports today that legislation pending in Austin will terminate the experiment. Surburban legislators have been furious that some of their (largely white and above-average income) constituents' kids are being denied entrance into Tier 1 schools in favor of poor kids (black, hispanic and white) from urban and rural districts. Now they apparently have enough votes to end the program. (In fairness, they are being aided in this by the colleges and universities involved who find the quota system restrictive to their own admission plans).

There are several obvious ironies to observe here, not the least of which is the spectacle of a nation telling poor kids to get ahead by getting an education and then refusing in every conceivable way to make that possible. But what struck me was that this news underscores the way suburban school districts were pitted against urban and rural ones. The same was true some years ago in Ohio when a collection of urban and rural districts sued the state, claiming the way schools were being funded was unconstitutional. (They won; but the state was firmly in the grip of Republicans and the legislature simply refused to address the court's ruling).

This is really myopic, since more and more we are recognizing the way metropolitan regions share interests and problems across the urban/suburban/rural divide. Questions like transportation, open-space preservation, food production, clean air and water, and economic development, transcend political and demographic boundaries, and the places that deal effectively with these issues will be those places that recognize that fact. In Texas, alas, suburbanites still don't seem to realize that the whole state has a vested interest in giving better educational access to all its kids.


Dan Miller said...

There's a lot of things you can call the effort to overturn the 10% policy, but "myopic" is not one of them. Unlike preserving a clean watershed or building a new mass transit line, this one is to a large degree zero-sum.

dance said...

"Terminate the experiment" seems a little strong. The article I read said they were capping admits through the 10% program at 75% of the student body.

The question to be asking is, does that make it an 8% program, or an effective 10%-from-high-performing-school and 6%-from-low-performance school program? That is, how are those 75% worth of spaces allocated to schools?

Scott said...

Can the author add any more hyperbole to the article? Declaring that this country urges kids to go to school and "then refusing in every conceivable way to make that possible" is a bit much.

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