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Ensuring Equal Opportunity in Texas Education: The Impact of Affirmative Action Bans

By: Shareea Woods   |   September 2023

This article was oringally published on The Dallas Morning News

I was a sixth grader in California when the state passed Proposition 209, which banned the use of affirmative action in California’s public institutions. Now witnessing the Supreme Court’s affirmative action rejection — after dedicating my career to helping students reach their highest potential, through access to college; science, technology, engineering and math education; and summer and after-school programs — I understand the challenges ahead for students of color. 

As a state, Texas is failing to equip all our students for college and careers. According to the Texas Education Agency, only about half of Texas graduates are college ready. When enrollment time comes, students are the first ones to bear the burden of not being prepared, and ultimately having an undereducated population impacts everyone. 

College gives us an opportunity to level the playing field and give under-resourced students a chance to maximize their potential and their contribution to the Texas economy. Affirmative action has been a key lever in helping diverse students access these opportunities. Our vision is not just that our students have equitable access to college, we want them to have equitable access to all our colleges — even the most selective institutions. 

Now, we find ourselves in a time when race-based admissions practices are not allowed anywhere in our country. While Texas has the top 10% rule, which offers some protection against the potential fallout from the recent decision, it is not enough. 

It is critical that we continue to invest in additional programs and policies that support underserved students, like dual credit programs, financial supports that make college more affordable, and targeted outreach to underrepresented students. 

The passage of Proposition 209 caused a drastic decline in the number of Black and Hispanic students who were able to enroll in California’s selective public institutions. This change could have limited my ability to enroll in selective institutions, but my mom was determined to ensure that I was prepared for college. 

Every day, I took a bus, sometimes before the sun came up, for an hour-long journey to a school that offered a quality education. Now, as a parent of my own second grader, I can empathize with the fear and determination my mom must have felt. Fortunately, her efforts paid off. 

In grade school, I was consistently one of the few Black students in my classes. I had access to excellent preparation, but that was not common for students of my race and background. Thanks to the strong early preparation I received, I excelled in advanced coursework and standardized tests. As a result, I gained admission to California’s elite public universities — UCLA and UC Berkeley —based on my grades and test scores. 

Access to and awareness of the preparation required to be competitive for college admissions is going to become even more important as students have less support in leveling the playing field after high school graduation. 

Ultimately, I chose to join the community of the private University of Southern California. Back then, I didn’t understand the context fully, but the private university nature of USC allowed for a more diverse campus experience, unlike the public schools subjected to the affirmative action ban. Since the Supreme Court decision impacts both public and private colleges, the options for our students may be even more limited than they were for me growing up in California in the wake of Proposition 209. In a state where Hispanic students make up over half of the student population, and Black students make up an additional 13%, ensuring our Hispanic and Black students receive quality education is critical to the economy and general well-being of our state. 

However, in our Texas College Access Network/Educate Texas 2023-24 inaugural “TXCAN State of College Access” report that will be released this fall, our research found only 21% of Hispanic students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities, compared with 39% of white students and 53% of Asian students. Even among college-ready Hispanic students, data showed only 31% attended four-year institutions, whereas 50% of college-ready white students and 54% of college-ready Asian students did. 

In a time when the gaps in postsecondary enrollment and outcomes persist, we should be offering our students more access and support, not less. Meanwhile, publicly available data shows that nearly half of high school graduates in Texas are not college and career ready. 

According to the TxCAN State of College Access report, just over half (55%) of Texas students complete even a single advanced course in high school. Texas 2036 found more than 40% of Texas school districts do not offer any Advanced Placement courses and 50% of Texas school districts do not offer any Advanced Placement courses in STEM. For many Texas students, it’s simply not possible to access the rigor needed to adequately prepare for college.  

Thinking about my children in the wake of this recent Supreme Court decision brought me back to my own experiences and how my mom’s sacrifices made a difference in my life. My family’s sacrifices enabled me to attend selective private institutions like Harvard and USC, which ultimately put me in a position to provide my children with quality educational and extracurricular experiences. The reality that their experiences are not typical is not lost on me. 

High school students shouldn’t be blamed for low test scores or low participation in advanced coursework if advanced classes were not provided or accessible. As a society, we must stand in the gap for these kids, or it will be our own loss. 

Shareea Woods is the director of Texas College Access Network at Educate Texas, an initative of the Communities Foundation of Texas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.