Primary school reform is key to protecting diversity in higher education

Michael Jensen

In less than a week, the U.S. Supreme Court will rehear the controversial Fisher v. University of Texas case. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, claims that as a white woman, she was denied admission to UT because of her race. UT currently considers race as part of a holistic admissions process for students, as do many other universities. The decision to rehear the Fisher case worries proponents of affirmative action, with some predicting the Supreme Court will strike down any use of race as an admissions criteria.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision to uphold affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger, minorities — particularly African-Americans — are clearly underrepresented at elite universities. If race-conscious admissions policies are ruled unconstitutional, then we have an obligation to fix the failures of our primary education system, which make affirmative action necessary in the first place.

Education has powerful effects on children’s development and future life outcomes. It is associated with improved health, lower criminality, higher incomes, greater life satisfaction and countless other benefits. By fixing our broken public schools, Texas could safeguard future generations while promoting diversity in higher education, even in the absence of affirmative action.

The protective effects of education are most vital earlier in life, when the brain and body are still developing. This critical developmental period is where we should focus our efforts if we want to use our tax dollars most effectively, while safeguarding diversity at the same time. By protecting diversity in higher education and doing so in a cost-effective way, this could be both a progressive and fiscally conservative plan. There is no reason why improving our schools should not enjoy bipartisan support.

Despite the abundance of evidence citing the importance of early life education, Texas’s current policies do not reflect this. Our public school system is ranked 39th in the nation, with a lackluster “C-” grade. We only spend 28 percent of our budget on K–12 education, our schools are still quite segregated, and minority students lag behind white students in graduation rates and standardized test scores. There’s undoubtedly much room for improvement and changes at the primary level can achieve that.

In 2005, Texas officially became a minority-majority state. Protecting diversity in higher education is about more than politics. It’s about ensuring that the every Texan, regardless of race, receives a fair and equal education which adequately prepares them for the future and unlocks future opportunity.

Fixing our failing public school system will cost taxpayer money and energy, but all Texas students — not just minorities — would benefit from better public schools. If we invest in the children of today, then the Texas of tomorrow will be smarter, more productive, healthier and better positioned to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st century. It’s also just the right thing to do.

Jensen is a neuroscience junior from Houston.