07/10/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

The Decades-Long Affirmative Action Debate is Incomplete


The Supreme Court's ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas made it clear that the Court (or at least five of the justices) sees race-based college admissions as a waning necessity. Since the 1970s, affirmative action advocates have declared race-based admission policies necessary to overcoming barriers to minority students' access to college. Meanwhile, some would like you to believe that affirmative action is unnecessary in the ("post-racial") era of President Obama, while the majority of the policy's opponents maintain that race-based admissions are discriminatory against white students. Although the debate has become quite nebulous -- with some debating whether affirmative action policies should focus on race or socioeconomic status, while others on whether these policies should exist at all -- college access remains at the core of the discussion. Yet, I find that much of recent debate and litigation surrounding affirmative action neglects the single most pervasive barrier to college access in America: failing K-12 public schools.

Affirmative action policies have directly resulted in increased numbers of minority students enrolled in two and four-year colleges -- and as a result, greater diversity at said colleges over the past 40 years. Because of this, millions of students have unquestionably benefited from a more well-rounded education than they would have otherwise received. But expanding the affirmative action debate to include the role failing K-12 schools play shines a spotlight on the swath of citizens who never matriculated to college or, what is worse, were wholly excluded from the process because of the school they attended.

It is well-known that minority students, who are key targets of affirmative action policies, are disproportionately segregated into America's low-performing schools. The isolation of minority and impoverished students in sub par schools often result in lowered proficiency and graduation rates for these groups compared to their white, Asian, and more affluent peers. Take for instance Chicago, my hometown, where in 2012 only 54.7 percent and 66.4 percent of Black and Hispanic students graduated high school, respectively. This is compared to 83.8 percent and 70 percent of Asian and white students, respectively. These statistics make it clear that far too many black and brown students have a slim chance at accessing a quality primary and secondary education, let alone enroll in college. Thusly, though I find value in having a debate around race-based admission policies, I am left questioning the substance of the current examination of affirmative action.

The Court ruled that before relying on affirmative action, colleges and universities now have to prove that "no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity." In effect, college admissions are now asked to be race unconscious, though the pipelines and the quality thereof, feeding into their applicant pools are stratified largely by race. Which then begs the question, how exactly does a race-neutral policy increase racial diversity? Moreover, is it even possible to have a neutral alternative absent of race consciousness? Regardless, I maintain that the key to increasing college access for minority students is not to change the way colleges select from an already distorted applicant pool, but to reform our failing schools.

The good news is that promising school reform is on the horizon. The nation's current shift to the Common Core State Standards signals the single most drastic change to our public school system in recent times. The "Common Core" (as it is commonly referred) is a state-led effort that will ensure that kindergarten through grade 12 students across our country -- from Massachusetts to Mississippi -- are gleaning from the same learning standards, which are both rigorous and comprehensive. Moreover, the Common Core are aligned so that upon graduating from 12th grade students have the knowledge and skills to access college and succeed in life. Moreover, participating states have created two consortia -- PARCC and Smarter Balanced -- tasked with crafting a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math. These assessments, which are expected to launch in 2014, are aligned to the Common Core and anchored in what it takes to be ready for college and careers. Needless to say, good things are happening for public education (and students' pathway to college) in this country.

I am not foolish enough to believe that the Common Core will serve as a silver bullet to all of our country's education issues. But it is a good -- no, great -- step forward in ensuring the improved quality of American public schools. And yes other reform is needed, such as refining our schools of education (which has a direct correlation to the quality of teachers they produce), but real progress is being made now. Let's expand the current circumscribed conversation around affirmative action to include what is happening right this moment and how we might go about increasing college access for all children, but especially minority students. Our focus should not solely remain on constructed dichotomies of race and class, race conscious and unconscious alternatives, or, more broadly, pro and anti-affirmative action viewpoints. Instead, we must begin addressing the proverbial elephant in the room.