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Notes on affirmative action

California’s decision in 1996 to outlaw the use of race in public college admissions was widely viewed as the beginning of the end for affirmative action at public universities all over the United States. But in the four years since Californians passed Proposition 209, most states have agreed that killing affirmative action outright would deepen social inequality by denying minority citizens access to higher education.

The half-dozen states that are actually thinking about abandoning race-sensitive admissions policies are themselves finding that the only way to enlarge the minority presence in college without such policies is o improve dramatically the public schools that most black and Latino students attend. As a result, these states are keeping a close eye on California, Texas and Florida, where “percentage systems” have sprung up to replace affirmative action.

Under these systems, students who achieve a specified ranking in their high school graduating classes are guaranteed admission to state colleges. In California, for example, the so-called 4 percent plan guarantees college admission to everyone in the top 4 percent of high school graduating classes statewide. Minority enrollment, which crashed after Proposition 209 passed, has rebounded at the second-tier colleges.

But the decline has continued at the flagship colleges, U. C. L. A. nd Berkeley — largely because the high schools in black and Latino neighborhoods routinely fail to offer the advanced placement courses that are readily available in white neighborhoods and that are taken into account when the elite colleges make admissions decisions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has challenged this arrangement in a class-action lawsuit. Having liminated the race-sensitive policies that once compensated for these inequalities, California is now being forced to deal with the inferior public schools that made those policies necessary.

The University of Texas has learned a similar lesson since a federal court ruling forced it to abandon race-based admissions policies in 1996. Black and Latino enrollment dipped precipitously in the first year, but rose again after the legislature passed a law guaranteeing college admission to all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of any public high school class. A recent report from the United States Civil Rights Commission attributed this success to innovative recruiting, mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the overwhelming lesson in Texas is that the public schools from which minority students come must be improved if these students are to perform at the top levels at the University of Texas. Texas now forces public schools to keep academic achievement records by race, and penalizes schools that allow black and Latino children to fall behind. Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida is currently embroiled in a fight over an executive order that outlaws race-based admissions at the state universities — while guaranteeing admissions to the top 20 percent of high school classes.

Mr. Bush’s order was meant to render moot a ballot initiative on affirmative action that Republicans feared would heighten black turnout in this year’s presidential election. The 20 percent rule seemed non-controversial and even generous — until Governor Bush found that roughly two-thirds of additional black students who might benefit from the rule had been so neglected in high school that they ad failed to graduate with the necessary credits for admission to the state university system.

The state is now pushing public schools that serve black students to provide better course offerings. What all these states have learned is that the only real way to make race-sensitive policies unnecessary is to guarantee black and Latino children from poor communities a realistic chance at a decent education that prepares them for college. To kill the policies before those guarantees are in place is to court civic disaster.

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