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In College Entry Rule, Reality Can Trump Logic

The top 10 percent rule at Texas colleges wasn't all about higher education — it was about the inequities in public schools that are still being litigated today.

Former state Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville

Let us pause for a moment to consider the legislative wizardry of the late Irma Rangel.

The Kingsville Democrat shared much of the credit for the brainstorm that created the state’s top 10 percent rule for colleges in 1997. That law says high school graduates in that top tier get automatic admission into state colleges and universities.

Even some of the people who hate that rule think it’s clever. And whether you like the results or not, the logic of it is difficult to escape.

The state had been told, in a 1996 decision called Hopwood v. Texas, that it couldn’t use race as a primary factor in admitting students to state universities.

And the state was defending itself — as it is, again, right now — against legal claims that its finance system doesn’t treat public schools equitably or finance them adequately in the effort to educate the children of Texas.

And then there’s the pesky little fact that many schools are dominated by students of one race or another.

The top 10 law answered the legal questions and forced some issues that are still being argued.

The Hopwood decision from the federal courts kept the state from using race in college admissions. The top 10 rule got around that, because it took the top students from every school, because the school populations are based largely on where people live and because people tend to live around people like themselves. Hispanic neighborhoods have mostly Hispanic students going to schools that often have Hispanic valedictorians. It’s no absolute, but it’s true enough to work as a functioning and legal alternative to race-based admissions.

It put the state in an awkward position in court, where it was arguing that every student had more or less the same access to quality elementary and secondary education. For an advocate of public education from a relatively poor part of the state like Rangel, that was a big one. The state would have to provide for the poorer schools, and the colleges would have to accept the best students.

It was a legislative two-fer: Rangel and others reasoned that every kid in the top 10 percent at one high school ought to be equal, educationally speaking, to every other one, and that the mix of students in the state’s colleges and universities ought to look like the mix of residents of the state as a whole.

It must be hard to be a lawyer for the state. Things that such advocates argue in one venue may not jibe with things they are arguing in another.

If the state doesn’t discriminate at any point in the educational assembly line, then the mix of students going in ought to be the same as the mix of kids coming out. One goal of standardized testing is that it might let everyone know just how true or false that is, on a student-by-student basis.

Each should have had a shot at the same education, even if it turns out that one gets better grades than another.

It shouldn’t matter, in theory, where each one went to school. In a perfect world — the one the lawyers have to defend in court — the top 10 student from Southlake ought to be roughly the equivalent of the top 10 student from Kermit.

That’s not how it works out. The top 10s aren’t equal, for a variety of reasons. The schools don’t provide the same level of education. The parents don’t lean on their kids to perform in school the same way.

Some of that is probably beyond regulation, but the state’s job — unlike that of, say, the parents’ — can be easily measured. Does every student have a shot at an “adequate” level of education, no matter where they live? That’s being argued in a district court in Austin, where school finance is on the operating table once again. What about the mix of students in college? That one’s back, too, in a lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over the use of race as one of an array of factors in college admissions in Texas.

The powers that be won’t get the answers 100 percent right. They never do.

Rangel and the others working all those years ago didn’t solve the problems, but they made it much more difficult to leave them unsolved.

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