on education

thoughts from a graduate student at the university of mary washington

recent issue in education: affirmative action. week seven.


In 2002, I began my collegiate career at The University of Texas at Austin. Those four years were some of the best of my life. The education I received was stellar. But I didn’t want to be there. Not really. I had my heart set on the University of Notre Dame. I spent my high school years slaving away in AP and IB courses, loading up on extracurriculars. I did everything in my power to make sure I got in. One day, in my English IV AP class, a girl overheard me talking about how I’d just sent in my application and I couldn’t wait to hear back. She asked me a little about Notre Dame, and then she said, “Hm. Maybe I’ll apply there, too.” Long story short, she got in. I didn’t. Her family had recently come from Puerto Rico. Nobody had been to college in her family. She didn’t do anything after school. Her GPA wasn’t as high as mine. But she got in. I didn’t. I didn’t understand. I didn’t blame her at all. I blamed the way schools decide who gets in and who doesn’t. I applied to the University of Texas “just in case”  — Texas has a law that says that if you’re in the top 10% of your graduating class in the state, you get in to any state university (as long as you apply), period. So, I got in to the University of Texas not by someone holistically reviewing my application and deciding I would be a good fit, but simply because my high school GPA was high enough. I bet they didn’t even look at my file. Regardless, I’m proud to have gotten my education there. I’m proud of the things the university is doing and has yet to do. It was recently named one of the top 25 universities in the world. People pay attention to this place.

Enter this week’s blog subject, which centers around… dundundun… The University of Texas.

The University has long been in the national spotlight when it comes to race and college admissions. In 1946, Heman Sweatt applied to the law school at UT. They didn’t want to let him in because he was black, so they formed a new law school just for negroes out in Houston. Mr. Sweatt took his grievance all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1950 the high court heard arguments in Sweatt v. Painter.  The issue at hand was whether or not Texas violated the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In other words, was the “separate but equal”  outcome of Plessy v. Ferguson acceptable? The court decided that it wasn’t, and required Mr. Sweatt to be admitted to the University law school because the school made for Negroes would have been grossly inadequate and decidedly unequal. The decision of the Sweatt case paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education just four years later, which effectively ended segregation of public schools. While the facilities of white and black public schools seemed to be equal, the Supreme Court decided that there were too many intangible factors that made educating whites and blacks separately inherently unequal.

The 1996 Hopwood decision came out of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Cheryl Hopwood was a white student that was rejected from the UT law school in 1992. Hopwood v. Texas centered around the issue of the law school’s admission process placing a greater value on black and Mexican students to round out the racial make-up of the student body to the detriment of whites and non-preferred minorities. The court ruled that the school was, in fact, violating the 14th amendment by significantly lowering the standards for blacks and Mexicans, while raising the standards for white applicants, making it much harder to get in. It was racial discrimination, and the court disallowed it.

The case of Grutter v. Bollinger was very similar in nature, but this one made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 2003. A white female law school applicant to the University of Michigan, Barbara Grutter, looked great on paper (hey, that sounds familiar!). She didn’t get in. Once again, the issue at hand is whether or not the school violated the 14th amendment by allowing race to be a factor in admissions, thereby giving precedence to minority applicants in order to culturally diversify the student body. The Supreme Court found that UM did not violate the 14th amendment, thereby repealing the decision in Hopwood v. Texas. Justice O’Connor wrote that the admissions policies did not violate the amendment, and instead provided great benefit from a diverse student body. Affirmative action stands.

And now, the University of Texas is in front of the Supreme Court again. Just this last week, Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin was argued. The gist: Is affirmative action allowed? Can colleges use race at all for deciding admission? If there’s a dead heat between a white woman and a black woman, who will get in? Why would the Court agree to hear something it had already ruled on? Every indication is that they will change their previous ruling. If affirmative action is ruled unconstitutional, will it affect our students?

I think it will. I think that the elementary and secondary teachers and schools will have to work even harder against the long list of factors keeping minority students from being successful on a large scale once they leave our classrooms. I see the ramifications and ripples of taking this out from under minority students. How can I stand in front of 25 wide-eyed students, telling them they can be whatever they want to be and do whatever they want to do, when there are so many inequities holding some of them back? This is where I think educational reform will be key: without this crutch — because it is one — giving a boost to many minority students seeking admission to universities across the country, how will they stay competitive? Here’s what I think: we elongate the school day. While we’re at it, let’s make school a year-round venture. Add after school programs and tutoring. And we need to seriously re-vamp standardized tests, which have been proven to favor students culturally and leave newcomers and minorities in the dust (Woestenhoff, 2011). A mentor once told me that fair is not giving everyone the same thing, but giving everyone exactly what they need to succeed.

What do you think? Is affirmative action fair? Is it constitutional? Do you see ramifications for K-12 teachers coming out of the Fisher decision?

I look at this a far different way as an educator than I did as a disheartened, disgruntled, rejected 18 year old student forced to go to a second-choice school because of affirmative action. (For the record: the Puerto Rican girl that beat me to Notre Dame? She’s also studying for her Masters in Education. She teaches in inner city New York, and continually blows my mind with her insight and thoughtfulness. I wonder if this would be the case, had race not been a contributing factor in her application to Notre Dame that got her started down this path. I’m glad it was). 

In chapter 7 of Foundations of Education, it is explained why federal courts can sometimes contradict each other, as was the case with Hopwood and Grutter. “Decisions of a court below the U.S. Supreme Court have force only in the geographic area served by that particular court. For this reason, it is possible to find conflicting rulings in different circuits (Ornstein, 2011, p. 260).  Also in chapter 7, the authors point out that most federal cases involving education have to do with the first and fourteenth amendments (Ornstein, 2011). All of the cases I mentioned in this post relate to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.



Liptak, A. (2012, 10 10). Justices weigh race as factor at universities. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/us/a-changed-court-revisits-affirmative-action-in-college-admissions.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=education

Ornstein, A., Levine, D., & Gutek, G. (2011). Foundations of education. (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

The Oyez Project. http://www.oyez.org/

Woestenhoff, J. (2011). What’s wrong with standardized tests?. Retrieved from http://seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/whats-wrong-with-standardized-tests/


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