One of the most important questions in America today is how to improve the quality of education for underrepresented minorities so that they can succeed in life. Two huge political earthquakes offer two vastly different answers: racial preferences and school choice.
In the first earthquake, the California Legislature voted to place a measure on the November ballot that would repeal the state’s landmark Proposition 209, which says, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
If repeal succeeds, race-based preferences in areas such as college admissions, which Prop. 209 has long prohibited, could return. Yet research shows that K-12 public education, not Prop. 209, is the real obstacle for underrepresented minorities entering higher education.
A University of California diversity report acknowledged “that unequal opportunities characterize the educational landscape in California.” It also said that these disparities, which are “severe, large and extensive, and associated with racial/ethnic and socio-economic factors,” actually “predate Proposition 209.”
Key to the lower eligibility of underrepresented minorities for university admission is the failure of the state’s public K-12 school system to prepare minority students for college. For instance, a foundational requirement for admission to the University of California is to take designated college-preparatory courses called the A-G requirement. A UC Academic Senate report found that for underrepresented minorities, the most significant factor preventing UC eligibility was the “failure to complete all required A-G courses with a C or better.”
According to the California Department of Education, in 2017-18, 43% of Hispanics and less than 40% of African American students met the A-G requirement — compared to 55% of whites and 75% of Asian Americans. That’s not a problem that a repeal of Proposition 209 can fix.
Further, the Academic Senate report found that “lower high school graduation rates for [underrepresented minorities]” was a key reason for the eligibility gap.
CDE data from 2014-15, the latest figures available, show that the graduation rate for African Americans was less than 71% and 81% for Hispanics — ] compared to 88% for whites and 93% for Asian Americans.
Minority parents realize that the public K-12 system is the problem and that race preferences in college admissions are not the answer.
A 2019 national Pew Research Center poll found that more than 6 out of 10 Hispanics and African Americans opposed considering race in college admissions.
The answer is to allow more school choice options to rescue these kids from failing public schools and switch to either homeschooling or a charter, private, or religious school that will better prepare them for college.
Non-white parents want more school choice options for their children. A 2020 American Federation of Children poll found that 68% of African Americans and 82% of Latinos supported using “tax dollars designated for their children’s education to send their child to the public or private school that best meets their needs.”
The second political earthquake could make this a reality. The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down a key state-level limitation on school-choice programs. The case, Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue, involved a so-called Blaine amendment in the Montana state constitution. Blaine amendments, adopted in 37 states, bar government funds from supporting religiously affiliated private schools.
The state’s supreme court had relied on that amendment to invalidate a school choice program that gave Montanans a tax credit if they contributed to nonprofit organizations that provided scholarships to children to attend private schools, including religious schools. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.” Thus, “their exclusion from the scholarship program here is ‘odious to our Constitution’ and ‘cannot stand.’”
The impact of this decision, as the Washington Post observed, will “help low-income parents afford a choice in their children’s education.” Kendra Espinoza, the lead plaintiff in the case, chose a religious private school “because she wanted a school that fit her daughters’ needs and was a place where they could thrive.”
Indeed, many rigorous studies on voucher and scholarship programs have found a positive impact on student performance, graduation rates, and college enrollment and persistence.
The Supreme Court’s Espinoza ruling opens the way for more and larger school choice programs to be enacted and underscores that school choice is the true civil rights issue of our time, not hurtful and divisive race preferences.
Lance Izumi is the senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.