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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

Outreach Texas Style
State's affirmative action ban leads to new programs

TEXAS, the other state affected by an affirmative action ban for the last several years, has not spent nearly as much money on pre-college outreach programs as has California.

That may be partly explained by the lower level of competition for seats at Texas' top universities. Whereas 31,000 students sought one of 3,500 seats in UC Berkeley's current freshman class, the University of Texas' Austin flagship received 18,000 applications for 6,500 slots.

"They're so much less selective," noted Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, who served as UT-Austin's president for four years before moving to Berkeley. In California, even students in the top four percent of their class, who will now be considered eligible for UC if they complete the right courses, won't be able to choose which one of UC's eight undergraduate campuses they attend.

Andrea Venezia, a researcher at Stanford University, noted that Texans don't view their university system in the same hierarchical fashion as do Californians. Many students, she said, are content to attend the campus in their region.

Besides being less selective, UT-Austin also has been less diverse -- with 18 percent underrepresented minorities in the final years of affirmative action, compared with 23 percent at Berkeley.

After a federal court decision outlawed preferences, the proportion of underrepresented minorities in UT-Austin's freshman class dropped significantly, but this year it has returned to 18 percent. Admissions director Bruce Walker credits the state's $100 million scholarship program for needy students who complete a series of college-prep courses, together with a 1997 law guaranteeing students in the top ten percent in each high school graduating class a seat at the public university of their choosing.

Though Texas' outreach picture hasn't changed as dramatically as California's, Texas universities continue to run various outreach programs. The El Paso Collaborative linking UT-El Paso and area school districts, for example, is a national model for K-16 partnerships.

Another highly successful program that is now being replicated in Newark and Los Angeles has been Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) in Houston. This collaboration among corporations, universities and schools has resulted in higher test scores, as well as fewer discipline problems.

No statewide inventory of the various school projects exists, and policy makers do not know how much is being spent on them. Only one Texas program is mandated by the state: a million-dollar network of six outreach centers that serves about 3,000 students a year.

"Right now, there's not a state strategy. The schools do it on their own individually," said Lynn Rodriguez, director of access and equity at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Texas has spent money on a different kind of outreach altogether: financial aid. The legislature has authorized $100 million in scholarships for needy students who complete a series of college-prep courses. The UT-Austin campus, meanwhile, has identified about 60 high schools where test scores and family incomes fall well below state averages. Up to six students from each school are eligible for $4,000 scholarships to attend the university.

That is not to say Texas has ignored the racial divide in K-12 education. Instead of channeling money and policies through higher education, the state has gone directly to public schools.

For example, an accountability system launched in the 1980s and ramped up in 1993 mandates that if fewer than half of any sub-group of a school's students -- whether African American, white, Hispanic or poor -- passed the state's tenth grade achievement test, the school would be labeled "low-performing," and a monitor could be assigned.

That system, while raising the performance of students across the board, yielded dramatic improvements in the pass rates of minority students, according to state officials. Last year, 68 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Hispanic students passed the test, compared with just 29 percent and 35 percent five years earlier.

But the test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), has not been free of controversy. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has argued that the test is unfair to minorities, saying the pass rates are skewed because minority dropout rates increased after the test was implemented.

To the extent that Texas education has improved, MALDEF attorney Al Kauffman credits more equitable funding, smaller class sizes and higher teacher salaries -- not the TAAS. However, a federal judge recently rejected MALDEF's argument, saying the test does not discriminate against minorities, and therefore can be used as a graduation requirement. u

-- Pamela Burdman

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