by Sigrid Bathen published October 17, 1999
SACRAMENTO — A class-action suit challenging that most fundamental of equal education rights–access–may well force the state’s education establishment to examine its two-tier system of public education, one for the children of the reasonably well-to-do, the other for everybody else. The suit has been likened to the landmark 1971 Serrano vs. Priest, which forced the state to address “wealth-related disparities” in school funding.
“Legally, it’s not a hard case,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California and the lead attorney on the ACLU suit. “The state can turn this case into a model of response. California could, with an appropriate response to the question of these disparities, reassert itself as the crown jewel of education.”
The ACLU sued the state of California, not the governor, who has made education reform his “first, second and third” priority, and not the University of California, though UC’s admissions standards are at the heart of the controversy. Neither does the suit directly target inequality in the early grades, where it all begins, nor UC admissions policies, which were challenged earlier this year in a federal-court suit by a coalition of civil rights groups. Rather, it focuses on the vaunted system of “advanced-placement” college-prep courses that earn extra grade points and are increasingly critical to a student’s admission to UC schools.
In 1998, according to the suit, UC Berkeley rejected 8,000 applicants whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher, instead admitting students who had earned the extra grade points associated with the more rigorous AP courses. At UCLA, last year’s applicants had an average GPA of 4.19, and those students had taken an average of nearly 17 AP and honors classes. These courses are not widely available to predominantly minority students in many inner-city high schools nor to many white students in rural schools.
Although the suit is aimed at all schools with limited AP offerings, the named defendant, in addition to the state and Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, is the Inglewood Unified School District, which offers few AP courses to its predominantly African American and Latino students. The ACLU cites some sobering statistics: Inglewood High School offers only three AP courses; 129 California public high schools with 80,000 students do not offer any AP classes; and 333 schools offer four or fewer. In contrast, Beverly Hills High, with a student body that is 76.6% white, offers 14 AP “subjects” and 45 AP classes; the 144 public high schools in California that offer more than 14 AP classes are 65% white or Asian American. “In the face of its own data,” says Rosenbaum, “with its eyes wide shut, California places hundreds of thousands of its children on uneven playing fields sodded with quicksand.”
Legal hyperbole perhaps, but there is certainly no shortage of hard data to support it. There are also increasing indications that the state’s education bureaucracy is poised to take action on several fronts. Since nobody in the hydra-headed education leadership is interested in taking on the ACLU and its largely unassailable statistics in court, some kind of negotiated settlement is likely and long overdue. The gathering storm of data is overwhelming: the steep drop in minority admissions to UC since passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, and, just last month, the announcement of an alarming disparity between whites and other ethnic groups in college entrance exams.
Michael E. Hersher, general counsel in the state Education Department, says a “programmatic solution” is likely to the dilemma raised by the ACLU suit. “It may take a couple of months to work out between the superintendent and the governor and the plaintiffs, but we have a history of working things out with the ACLU, and they have a pretty pragmatic sense of how far we can go. . . . This is a genuine equity issue, and I think it will have enough political push to bring about a solution.”
In California’s quirky, often unmanageable education-governance system, the elected state superintendent heads the Education Department, but policy is made by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. Eastin and Gov. Gray Davis are both Democrats but historically sometimes at odds. Davis has been clear from the outset of his administration that it is he, not the superintendent, who sets the state’s education agenda.
Davis’ education secretary, former state Sen. Gary K. Hart, will be a key player. While not addressing the suit directly, Hart says Davis is “certainly enthusiastic” about AP courses. “It is consistent with his theme, his philosophy, his expectations. . . . Anything that encourages students to reach higher and take the toughest courses, he certainly supports that.”
AP courses are a subject Hart knows well. When director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, Hart initiated a study of AP courses and their impact on student achievement and college readiness. The 21-page, largely unpublicized report, by William Furry, a veteran education advisor to the Legislature and deputy state education secretary in the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson, reviewed AP courses in California secondary schools for 1997-98.
Noting that the AP program “has enjoyed explosive growth in California high schools in the past decade,” the report concluded that this growth has come “with little public attention and even less analysis.” At the same time, competition for admission to top universities, including UC, has become staggeringly intense, often hinging on the successful completion of AP-course work, which, according to the Furry report, makes college applications “more alluring and weighted for success.” The study utilized state and national databases to determine the availability of AP classes, the rate of student participation and their performance on the crucial AP exams.
In 1988, 39,040 public high school students took 56,668 AP exams. A decade later, those numbers had risen to 87,683 students and more than 145,000 exams. In the fall of 1997, 210,000 students were enrolled in AP classes, although Furry notes that the statewide database does not account for the number of individual students participating in the program, and many students take more than one AP class.
The report notes “certain key concerns,” in addition to the lack of statistical and programmatic analysis, about AP courses. Among them: the “elitist” nature of the program, which favors those “who have access to the best academic preparation–essentially providing only one favored subset of students with important tools for career success.” A corollary concern: “whether there is systematic bias against students because of location, gender or ethnicity.” Although AP courses are offered in inner-city schools, their availability is nowhere near that of many schools in suburban areas. Rural schools fare no better. More than 90% of California’s high schools offer AP courses, but many students, across all ethnicities and socioeconomic strata, have limited AP opportunities.
Furthermore, the report concludes, “in schools across all levels of AP-program size,” Latinos and African Americans participate at rates “substantially below their share of total school enrollment.” Those who do participate score lower than white and Asian students, and nearly one-third don’t take the required post-course exams. In a range of 1-5 (5 being the top score, 3 a passing score), blacks had the lowest scores: 64.6% scored a 1 or 2, Latinos only slightly better. By contrast, 32.7% of whites and 37.4% of Asians who took tests scored 1 or 2.
“In the final analysis, it’s not so much the availability [of AP classes] as the preparation [for them],” Furry says. “In schools with large populations of low-income minority students, the minority students, by and large, are not participating.” But he said the assertion that suburban schools have “a plethora of AP classes” and minority, low-income schools do not “is just not true.” Many schools have added AP courses in the past two years.
“The bottom line is that mandating AP classes is not going to solve the problem,” he says. Asked what will, he said: better preparation, “beginning in kindergarten.”
Better preparation translates into many things: better schools, better teachers, smaller classes, well-equipped facilities and that sometimes elusive but crucial requirement, stable home lives. The idea that kids from impoverished, fractured families in unsafe, drug-ridden central cities have an even chance is ludicrous on its face. But the notion that they can’t succeed if given real opportunity in the form of better schools, textbooks, computer labs and, most important, good teachers is the worst kind of institutional race and class discrimination.
The readiness of students to embark on an AP curriculum without having been prepared throughout their school lives is the deeper issue that educators and politicians are often loathe to address. “It’s not just race, it’s class as well,” says the ACLU’s Rosenbaum. “If it were Beverly Hills High School or Pacific Palisades that had no AP courses, that situation would last for a nanosecond.”
Sigrid Bathen, an adjunct professor of journalism at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education