NEA Urges Supreme Court to Uphold Diversity Programs in College Admissions

The consideration of race in college admissions may be soon settled by the U.S. Supreme Court—but not before justices have heard the resounding voice of the National Education Association and its members on the importance of diversity in education.

“I work for the National Education Association,” NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien said today in a rally on the steps of the Court, as justices inside heard oral arguments in a landmark case of affirmative action in higher education. “Diversity programs such as the one at issue in this case are worth fighting for, and I am proud to say that the NEA has been and will continue to be in the vanguard of this fight!” O’Brien told the cheering crowd.

National Education Association General Counsel Alice O'Brien speaks on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. Photo: Emma Chadband

At the rally, students and educators waved “Diversity Works!” signs in the air as they listened to more than 30 speakers from different organizations explain why diversity is still a worthwhile goal for American higher education. In addition to the NEA, representatives from the NAACP, NOW, and AFSCME, along with Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson, rallied support for affirmative action. Students also attended, waving handmade signs saying “I am more than my test scores,” and “I am not a model minority.”

“The students in high-poverty, minority-segregated schools are more than a statistic,” O’Brien continued. “They are young people with hopes and dreams just like the students who grow up in more affluent circumstances with abundant opportunities and resources.  These young people overcome obstacles that others never confront.  It is all together fitting and proper to take that reality into account in making admissions decisions.”

In the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, the plaintiff, a white woman denied admission in 2008, argues that the university discriminated against her because of her race. She has lost her case before a trial court and a federal court of appeals, both of which found that the university’s use of race as part of a “holistic multi-factor individualized assessment of each applicant,” is permitted by law. Today, the Supreme Court takes up the issue. Among its considerations will be more than 70 amicus briefs filed in support of the university, including a powerful argument filed earlier this year by NEA’s attorneys.

In its brief, which was cosigned by 27 NEA state associations, the People for the American Way and labor unions including AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU, NEA strongly urges the Court to uphold the practices that promote diversity in higher education. “NEA has a deep and abiding commitment to equal opportunity in all aspects of our society and to the proposition that equal education opportunities, including the opportunity to learn with students of races other than one’s own, are a fundamental prerequisite to such equality,” according to the brief.

It was the sixteenth amicus brief that NEA has filed since 1969 in support of affirmative action and the value of diversity in educational and employment settings.

“NEA has a long and proud history of supporting affirmative action,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We know without a doubt that diverse classrooms better prepare students for a diverse workforce and life in our vibrant, diverse society.”

The Case At Hand

In the case of University of Texas, most students are admitted to the college through a Top Ten Percent Plan, which automatically admits any Texas resident who graduates in the top 10 percent of her high school class. To fill the remaining spots, university officials do a more individualized assessment of the candidates, looking at factors such as academic performance, essays, leadership qualities, work experience—and race.

Their consideration of race is completely legal under existing law, which was settled in 2003 by a Supreme Court that included now-retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In that case, which had to do with admissions decisions at the University of Michigan law school, the Court ruled that an admissions policy that looks at a variety of factors including race, but does not amount to a quota system, would be constitutional.

Photos: Emma Chadband and Edward Graham
The Court obviously is different today. O’Connor has been replaced by the more conservative Justice Samuel Alito. But the arguments haven’t changed a bit, notes Mary Ann Pacheco, an English professor at Rio Hondo Community College in California and winner of NEA’s 2012 César Chávez Acción y Compromiso Human and Civil Rights Award. “To me, it comes down to the same question: Is there an intrinsic value in diversity? And, to me, the answer is so obvious. Diversity is value-added to any institution—whether it’s a university or NEA.”

A one-race school doesn’t serve well its students who someday will set out to work in a very diverse America. (For the first time in history, Census data shows that white babies accounted for less than half of American births in 2011.) Nor does it serve America to deny opportunities to minority students who could be our future scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers and doctors, said Pacheco.

Candace Shivers, who teaches sociology and human services at Mount Wachusett Community College in northern Massachusetts, has students who will go on to work with elderly or disabled clients. Those clients won’t all be white, like her students. “Their clientele is going to look like America,” said Shivers, who is one of very few minority professors on her campus.

Yet, even as America becomes more racially diverse, its K-12 schools remain mostly segregated. Two out of five Black and Hispanic students attend “intensely segregated schools,” according to NEA’s amicus brief. (“I have at least a dozen students who tell me I’m their first black teacher,” noted Professor Shivers.) And, the reality is that many of those all-Black or all-Hispanic schools still suffer from persistent inequalities, such as a lack of Advanced Placement courses. Meanwhile, research shows that students in integrated schools do better academically—both majority and minority students.

There is this myth, Pacheco suggested, that the world has changed so much over the past years that race is no longer a factor in America. In truth, “we’re a long way from being there. To think that we are is naïve at best and foolish at worst,” she said.