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Are Ohio's Black and Latino Students Buoyed by a System of Preferences? Not Hardly

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The Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) just released a study that purports to document "heavy discrimination" against White applicants in undergraduate admissions at the Ohio State University and Miami University. The CEO claims that the schools give varying degrees of preference to students of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, over white applicants with similar test scores and grades.

The CEO report is right in one crucial respect: our state and national education systems harbor terrible inequities that skew sharply along lines of race and ethnicity. But the study authors point an accusatory finger at the wrong place in the educational pipeline and wrongly identify the students who bear the greatest burden of that injustice. In so doing the CEO report is likely to generate heat but shed little light on the critical issue of equal educational opportunity for all Ohio's children.

The admissions challenge faced by every selective university is to choose students who can best take advantage of the opportunities the institution provides and who can help create the most productive educational environment for members of the campus community. Ohio, like many states, is also heavily invested in increasing the educational attainment of its residents so as to promote the state's competitiveness in the 21 st century economy. Enrolling and supporting highly capable first-generation college students is one key to achieving this goal.

Grades and test scores may be necessary but are hardly sufficient criteria on which to base decisions that foster these important objectives. Spokespeople from both OSU and Miami University have said as much in their responses to the CEO study.

Even insofar as test scores and grades capture something we agree merits consideration as part of the admissions process, is it really sensible to conclude that Student A is more deserving than Student B because he or she earned a higher score? Suppose Student B worked 20 hours per week to help support his family while Student A was able to focus only on her studies? What if Student B had daily child care responsibilities for a younger brother or sister? Or just couldn't afford the test prep courses from which Student A benefitted?

These kinds of everyday variations in circumstances begin to explain why virtually all selective colleges and universities look beyond grades and test scores in assessing student merit. And would it shock you to learn that the kinds of challenges that raise the most serious barriers to academic success are faced disproportionately by black and Latino students?

Here we get to the heart of the matter. One would think that an organization calling itself the Center for Equal Opportunity would rail against the ugly racial and class inequities that scar our K-12 system. In just about every way that matters to the educational process, from the availability of rigorous college prep classes to the distribution of experienced teachers, from access to the best textbooks to accommodation within the best facilities, African American, Latino and poor students fare worse than their peers.

Nationwide, 33 percent of African American and 46 percent of Latino elementary students attend schools where at least three in four children are poor. In contrast, only 13 percent of white students attend such high-poverty schools. In 2000, African Americans in Ohio's three largest metropolitan areas attended schools with student poverty rates two to three times higher than the rates experienced by white students. Do we really need to consult the mountain of research to understand the grim race-inflected implications of those disparities for student learning and achievement?

This is not a simple story about racial discrimination, much less a simplistic one about uncaring teachers and principals. This is a story about how all of us are failing our schools, and failing the great majority of teachers, principals, counselors and, yes, parents trying to nurture and push students to success.

Brute, racialized disparities across schools and districts led one African American mother in Ohio, Kelly Williams-Bolar, to send her two girls to school in the more affluent, predominantly white district where her father lived. For this, a judge recently sentenced Williams-Bolar to 10 days in jail. Can we agree that a US citizen should not have to choose between breaking the law and providing a decent education for her children regardless of race or personal finances?

The inequities that shape our children's education are apparent in our segregated communities as well. Researchers estimate that health disparities alone account for a quarter of the black-white high school achievement gap nationally. In terms of cognitive development, living in a high-poverty, distressed neighborhood is equivalent to missing a full year of school.

Again, students of color bear the brunt of these realities, but the kinds of systematic educational disadvantage we're talking about cut across lines of race and ethnicity. That is why some white students also benefit from affirmative action policies intended to open access to Ohio schools. For example, the Ohio State University's admissions criteria consider not only race, but also cultural, economic and geographic diversity as well as first-generation college student status. Moving away from these criteria to further elevate test scores would limit access for many low-income white students, including first-generation college students from underrepresented areas like Ohio's Appalachian counties.

Higher education is the tip of the education mountain; primary and secondary education is the bulk of the mountain, the seedbed for developments further along the pipeline. To my knowledge, the next Center for Equal Opportunity report that engages the critical matter of how racial and ethnic "preferences" are effectively built into the fabric of our neighborhoods and K-12 systems will be the first. I look forward to reading it.

Crossposted from Race-Talk.