Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

States, Courts Affect Race-Conscious Education Policies

Published in the August 2007 AAMC Reporter

Several states are planning or considering anti-affirmative-action ballot initiatives as part of their 2008 elections. Meanwhile, two recent Supreme Court decisions upheld the legal standing of race-conscious policies used in higher education admissions.

The passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, also known as Proposal 2, last year has emboldened affirmative action

United States Supreme Court

opponents to take their case to other states. To date, only Colorado has an official ballot initiative on the topic, but Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma could also potentially put affirmative action up for a vote in 2008.

The Colorado initiative would prevent state agencies from discriminating and providing preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, or national origin for public employment, education, or contracting.

“We have learned over the years with other similar ballot measures and court decisions that these actions often have a chilling effect on the ability of underrepresented students to believe that it is possible for them to pursue the higher education path,” said Charles Terrell, Ed.D., vice president of the AAMC’s Division of Diversity Policy and Programs.

After this type of ballot initiative passes, Terrell said, state academic medical institutions almost always experience a drop-off in applications from underrepresented groups. With the Michigan initiative already in place, measures in other states could create a noticeable change in the medical school applicant pool within only a few years, Terrell said.

AAMC statistics for the University of California system and the University of Washington School of Medicine—both of which saw anti-affirmative action referenda in the mid-to-late 1990s—show that in 2005, of 1,047 matriculants to California medical schools, 39 were black and 124 were Latino. In Washington, only 11 minority students enrolled in 2005.

Ward Connerly, a former University of California Board of Regents member who supports anti-affirmative action referenda and is pushing the Colorado ballot initiative, supports applying these kinds of policies only along socioeconomic lines. Eliminating race as a factor in the admissions process will only lead to a stronger, more diverse medical school population and physician workforce, he said.

“If you take away the threat of the stereotype that a black student can only get into an institution based on his or her skin color and can’t perform as well as other students, they will naturally achieve at higher levels because they know they are viewed just like everyone else,” Connerly said. “If you remove race-based affirmative action, black students will gain more confidence.”

Affirmative action advocates, however, said Banning the practice as currently constituted would have a negative effect.

“We would be realizing our worst fears if more legislation to ban affirmative action is passed,” said Ellen Buchman, director of field operations for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “Educating the public on what these ballot initiatives will actually do is our primary goal, and if we can accomplish it, I think proponents of eliminating affirmative action are less likely to succeed.”

Higher education is often at the center of debate because it is viewed as the point where a lack of diversity often begins, Buchman said. But two cases decided by the Supreme Court in June addressed diversity-enhancing programs at the elementary school level.

In the two cases, Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District and Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that two policies used in K-12 school systems that attempted to use race to create diverse school populations were unconstitutional.

In Seattle’s school district, parents rank their schools of choice. If a school is over-requested, administrators assign students in ways that keep schools racially balanced. In Louisville, Ky., students are assigned to schools based on their residence, but they can request to attend other schools. Since Louisville policy mandates that 15 percent to 50 percent of each school’s enrollment be black, race is considered in every student transfer request.

Although the judges ruled the approaches were unconstitutional, proponents of race-conscious education policies said the decisions were at least a partial victory because the judges upheld the legality of a limited use of race in higher education admissions policies, which was established by the court’s 2003 decision in the watershed Grutter v. Bollinger case.

“The [court] ruled against race-conscious policies employed specifically by the school systems,” Terrell said.

“However, the court upheld diversity as a compelling interest, and found that race-conscious policies, when narrowly tailored, continue to be constitutional. This is important, good news for higher education in general, and our medical schools in particular,” Terrell said.

According to Arthur L. Coleman, J.D., an attorney who counsels AAMC and other higher education institutions on issues of access and diversity, there was uncertainty about the potential effects of the decision.

“Some had raised questions about whether this court would use the K-12 cases as an opportunity to overrule the 5-4 Grutter decision, [but] we now have nine justices affirming in one way or the other the core principles of Grutter.”

Coleman said he believes that, as a consequence, higher education institutions are in stronger positions to establish access and diversity policies, although he said that “such policies must be designed and implemented with care.”



March 22, 2010 - Posted by | Healthcare, Politics | , , , ,

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