Apodaca: Admissions policies are not the real problem

Last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding (sort of) affirmative action in higher education probably won't register a jot here in California, where race-based preferences were banned by voters in 1996.

But inequality in education remains a burning issue that will ignite our political discourse for a long time to come.

To recap, the high court had agreed to hear a case challenging the University of Texas' admissions policy, which gives some preferential treatment to minority applicants. Many observers expected a majority of the justices to use the case to bar such policies outright.

But in a somewhat surprising move, the court voted 7 to 1 on a more middle-ground approach. The decision essentially upheld the right of institutions of higher learning to consider race as a factor in admissions, but indicated that such policies should be applied sparingly and only when "non-racial" methods of achieving racial diversity had been exhausted.

A non-racial approach would include a Texas law that guarantees admission to the top 10% of each high school's graduating class, a policy that has opened the door to many minority and disadvantaged students.

We have a similar law in California. Called Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC), it assures admission to at least one University of California campus for students ranking in the top 9% of their high-school class based on their GPAs in UC-approved coursework in the 10th and 11th grades.

The ruling in the Texas case drew criticism from some who saw it as too wishy-washy, and praise by others for its restraint. Either way, it was just vague and narrow enough for both sides of the debate over affirmative action to claim victory.

But a true victory — one in which all children are given full and fair access to a quality education — remains light years away.

Indeed, the fact that the nation's highest court must weigh in on university admissions policies speaks volumes about another kind of diversity in our educational system: The vast inequities that exist in elementary and secondary education. It is that inequality that universities attempt to offset when considering applicants, but theirs is a remedy that comes far too late to help the overwhelming majority of kids in need.

Whatever we do to try to engineer better access to a college education for disadvantaged students — whether through racial preferences or methods like ELC — it will never fix the rotten core of the problem, which is that too many students are behind in the education game from day one.

Such thinking is at the heart of Gov. Jerry Brown's passionate quest to redistribute K-12 education dollars in the state. His "Local Control Funding Formula," in which he proposed shifting money from some districts — generally those in higher-income, suburban neighborhoods — to those with larger numbers of disadvantaged students was one of the hallmarks of state budget negotiations this year.

The final budget, passed by the Legislature earlier this month and signed into law by Brown on Thursday, scaled back the redistribution plan to mitigate the harm to districts in middle-class areas. That's a good thing since after years of financial hardship, no district can afford more cuts.

The new budget provides for K-12 spending overall to rise by about $1 billion over two years. A total of $2.1 billion was allocated for the local-control formula, plus $1.25 billion for the implementation of the new Common Core educational standards.

But Brown's overarching message — that addressing the needs of disadvantaged students in elementary through high school years is both a moral and practical imperative of our time — deserves far more attention.

That message was reinforced by a report presented to the U.S. Department of Education by the nonpartisan Equity and Excellence Commission in February. The commission, created by Congress to offer advice on addressing inequality in education, found that vast inequities not only remained, but had worsened.

"The situation is dire, the agenda urgent," the report stated.

"We are relegating a large and growing portion of our population to bleak economic futures."

Millions of poor and minority students are "having their lives blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students," the report concluded.

This reality is costing the U.S. dearly in terms of economic development and international competitiveness, the report said. It recommended a five-part strategy based on reforming school financing and curricula, expanding access to early childhood education, mitigating the effects of poverty and improving accountability.

The report's authors cautioned against the inclination to view their conclusions as hyperbole, and pointedly jabbed at leaders who "decry but tolerate disparities in student outcomes that are not only unfair but socially and economically dangerous."

Will all the renewed attention to the inequality problem lead to workable solutions and real action? It's hard to be optimistic.

Thirty years ago, "A Nation at Risk" famously sounded the alarm over the "rising tide of mediocrity" in our schools.

Today, the warning bells are clanging again, and it isn't merely mediocrity that set them off. Our educational system is failing far too many kids, and a hundred court rulings on college admissions policies aren't going to change that.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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