by Danielle Marie Holland
Washington State has already prohibited public universities from using affirmative action for the past quarter-century, but that doesn’t mean the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College won’t have far-reaching consequences beyond state collegiate systems. While the court has effectively ended admission policies that address inequity through race-conscious measures, this decision has the potential to set back equity efforts through the entirety of the educational pathway.
“I have real concerns not only for Seattle, but more prominently in the U.S., about how this is going to impact funding models long-term,” said Brandon Hersey, the South End’s director on the Seattle Public Schools board. Hersey recognizes that numerous universities and colleges have been working in preparation to ensure equity in their admission processes. His greater concern is the legal precedent of calling into question any strategy based on race, potentially limiting both the ability and resources to support students of color throughout their entire academic timeline.
Washington institutions released statements in response to the ruling, attesting to their commitment to recruiting and retaining diverse campuses. “We are actively exploring the implications of today’s decision,” said Seattle University’s President Eduardo Peñalver, noting that in the meantime, “we will make every effort to continue to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of the world we are preparing our students to lead.”
Citing Initiative 200, the Washington ban on affirmative action passed in 1998, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce said the UW would review whether the Supreme Court’s action would have any additional impacts on the UW, and that the university “remains firmly committed to creating opportunity and expanding access to world-class education for students from all backgrounds.”
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Washington was one of nine states to ban race-based admissions. After I-200 went into effect, early data tracked a drop in admissions numbers in Washington colleges from underrepresented minorities (URMs). The data becomes murkier when searching for the impact of what 25 years has brought. “The reason you’re not seeing the research is because there isn’t research being done anymore,” said Deirdre Bowen, professor of law at Seattle University.
Bowen shared that after the initial concern following the passage of the law, state schools settled into a rhythm as they adapted to the ban. “The impact was that the most selective state school in Washington State, the University of Washington, saw a downturn in the number of People of Color applying to the school, pretty radically afterward. Then they engaged in recruitment measures to try to increase the pipeline.”
When looking at graphs of student body numbers, it becomes hard to determine what numbers even signify success, or what have been the most impactful measures in working around the ban. In the I-200 era, recruitment resources at state schools had been curtailed from privileging one racial group over another, so investment programs designed to specifically develop a pathway for People of Color to apply had to be adjusted. For example, recruitment moved toward rural areas which have fewer opportunities and less infrastructure for college readiness.
There is a substantial difference across the private/public barrier when reviewing the numbers of URMs across Washington public and private schools. Public schools in the 25 years of the state ban have had limitations that seemingly produced an impactful difference. Bowen identifies that the short-term response to the SCOTUS ruling will be an “immediate calibration of admissions policies,” wherein race, primarily used in a holistic way (not as point value or a quota), will no longer be a factor that will be considered among many things. Washington private schools will remove current affirmative action recruitment policies from their admissions and may see a corresponding drop in the number of URMs.
Bowen shared Hersey’s concern over the long-term and downstream effects of the ruling, as schools adapt for compliance. She says the far-reaching language will probably ensure schools move conservatively and likely put at grave risk innovative programs and initiatives that support BIPOC students. As America effectively extinguishes affirmative action, schools across the educational timeline will be seeking how to support diverse student bodies.
Colleges that remain committed to critical mass within each underrepresented group will work to restructure college admissions programs. “They can ask what are the things that largely privilege people who are white and upper class and then say, do these really reflect what we need to have someone succeed in college?” said Bowen. Colleges may restructure the prioritization process, amplifying essays and interviews to play a bigger role, while lowering the emphasis on standardized tests that give those with the financial means for tutors and college consultants a leg up.
Some states will turn to alternative methodologies. When Texas banned affirmative action, the legislature enacted the “Top 10% Rule,” automatically admitting any student graduating in the top 10% of their high school class to Texas public universities. Other schools may prioritize looking more at income, as an imperfect proxy for race.
Bowen identifies the need much earlier in the educational pathway to equitable access to higher education — all the way back to preschool. “There are states that have done a redistribution of their property tax. So those areas with fewer high property revenue options get a greater distribution from the state to make up for that.” She says this ruling is an opportunity for us to rethink education and funding models. “When we educate at the preschool through senior year, we want to provide options very early on to let students know what is possible,” she stated.
Hersey’s unique experience of being an educator in South King County and Federal Way prior to his election onto the school board has given him a holistic understanding of the complexity of our city and state’s resource and funding challenges in these matters, especially as they pertain to students of color. “We have an educational environment that is founded on broken formulas that are coming down from the state,” Hersey stated, referencing regionalization and transportation-related educational costs.
With Washington State funding based around regionalization (a funding formula intended to maintain competitive market rates, salaries for school districts, and regions with a higher cost of living), school districts in proximity to one another experience such variation in the regionalization money that they receive, that between predominantly white communities and predominantly Communities of Color, huge disparities have been created.
This one-size-fits-all formula approach also applies to heavy transportation costs. The Student Transportation Allocation Reporting System (STARS) determines how much money Seattle is reimbursed, based on services provided. Seattle spends more than other districts on transportation costs that aren’t reimbursed. “That creates an inequity to the point where we are spending more of our general fund dollars on transportation,” said Hersey, “which means that money is not able to be allocated to other things.”
As the ongoing and complex budget crisis in funding public education continues, it is families in the South End who feel the brunt more. Schools with high tax revenue in the north will have greater capacity as communities to pick up the slack and support funding programs, people, and resources that get slashed. “So many of these different funding aspects and revenues present a real need for us to take a look at school funding and commit to making changes that will actually lead to beneficial academic outcomes for students,” Hersey said.
For parents looking to advocate for such academic outcomes and funding equity, they will need to look to the Washington State House Education Committee for change.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 07/18/2023 to correct a misspelling of Deirdre Brown’s name.
Danielle Marie Holland is an essayist, transformative writer, and podcaster. Danielle is a regular contributing writer at Parents Magazine, and her work has been published in DAME, Insider, Rewire News Group, and beyond. Her book A String of Apologies is forthcoming via Hinton Publishing.
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