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Leadership from the Bottom Up
By Lani Guinier and
Gerald Torres

During the Republican convention, Colin Powell boldly challenged his Party to be inclusive and follow the leadership George Bush has demonstrated in Texas. He touted Texas’s 10 percent plan, which grants automatic college admission to all high school seniors graduating in the top ten percent of their class, as a model of inclusive reform. Indeed, George W. Bush calls this plan an example of his compassionate conservatism. And the plan has been remarkably successful. But hailing this plan as a Republican model of conservative programs would be more convincing if Mr. Bush’s rhetoric had been matched by action at the time.

Mr. Bush has plainly taken credit for the program, although he did little to get the plan passed. The legislature adopted the program in 1997, after the federal court of appeals Hopwood decision outlawed affirmative action at the University of Texas.

The 10 percent plan was conceived and advocated by black and Hispanic state legislators. Its sponsor, the House Higher Education sub-committee Chair, is a Democrat and the first Mexican American woman elected to the legislature in Texas. Governor Bush’s contribution? He didn’t veto the plan. During the debate over the bill, Mr. Bush “never publicly supported the idea" says the bill’s sponsor, Irma Rangel.

The plan works because Texas remains a highly segregated Southern state, both racially and economically. Before this plan, the University of Texas at Austin filled the bulk of its freshman seats from a tiny percentage of Texas’ 1500 high schools, i.e. the economically privileged suburban and private schools.

The 10 percent program has established both equity in the admissions process and diversity on campus. About 300 African-Americans were enrolled in last year's freshman class, a 50 percent increase over the number who were enrolled in the year immediately following the Hopwood decision. The number of Hispanic students has also increased – even beyond the numbers admitted when affirmative action was the official policy. In addition, several poor counties in rural west Texas, which are predominantly white, sent graduates to Austin for the first time under the plan. Contrary to the fears that these students would be unqualified, the 10 percenters exceeded expectations and, in fact, their grade point average in their first year was higher than black and white students before the Hopwood decision.

Part of the success also comes from changes within the university. The administration now identifies every student who might need remedial assistance – (most of whom are not 10 percenters) and provides all manner of support. The administration created more small classes for freshman, making the freshman experience better for all students. The university also allocated full ride scholarships to high schools with large numbers of poor and working class students who had not traditionally applied to the university.

People in the university who were originally lukewarm now appreciate how it has made the school better, indeed smarter. Yet, despite these successes, and despite the high regard in which George Bush professes to hold the plan, there are rumblings among state Republicans that they will try to change it in the next legislative session in January 2001. They want to restore the SAT requirement for college admission, even though that test fails to predict the qualities of leadership or even undergraduate achievement that the University values. What the SAT did do is reward those who could afford coaching and test prep. Some are still chafing, in other words, at the way the 10 percent plan limited the monopoly enjoyed by suburban and private high schools that had dominated enrollment of the flagship campuses. George Bush, to our knowledge, has done nothing to discourage these efforts. "Hopwood required forward thinking, and he's been passive," Professor Michael Olivas, an expert in higher education law, says of Mr. Bush.

This is not to say that national Democrats are on board, despite the plan’s success at keeping the flagship campus of the University of Texas integrated. A Clinton Administration official calls the plan “pernicious” because attempts in other states to imitate it, without the educational efforts that made the Texas plan work, may lead to a retreat from affirmative action. And those Democrats may be right if the Texas plan is mistaken as a model for national policy in which politicians impose percentage plans without regard to the demographics or educational needs of their state and without the leadership of people of color that led to this innovation in the first place.

While George Bush has a real accomplishment to point to – one that he claims reinforces his message of compassionate conservatism –– he should be honest that his accomplishment only came because he followed, not led. The Governor should be bold enough to credit the black and brown leadership who gave him the opportunity to crow about their successes today in the name of education reform. That would be inclusiveness.

An edited version of this commentary appeared in the New York Times on August 8, 2000 under the title Credit Bush Doesn’t Deserve.

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