Tuesday, May 29, 2007

House rejects top 10 percent revisions

This is significant. Looks like the rurals together with the Mexican American legislative caucus made the difference here. -Angela

House rejects top 10 percent revisions
Supporters huddle to find a way to revive proposal.

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Monday, May 28, 2007
Legislation that would have allowed the University of Texas to deny admission to some students ranking in the top 10 percent of their high school class for the first time since 1997 was derailed by the Texas House on Sunday night.

Top 10 percent students from Texas high schools have enjoyed a virtually unfettered right to attend any public college or university in the state since lawmakers enacted an automatic-admission law 10 years ago in hopes of increasing minority enrollment, especially at the University of Texas at Austin.

Senate Bill 101 would have allowed a school to limit top 10 percent students to 60 percent of its freshmen from Texas high schools. The Senate passed the measure 28-2 Sunday, but the House rejected it on a 75-64 vote.

The House sponsor, Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, and other supporters of the bill were huddling late Sunday to try to find a way to revive the legislation before time runs out in the legislative session today.

Because there is a midnight deadline for passing bills, the issue appeared all but dead for another two years. But the measure's sponsors weren't giving up, and they could force another vote. Soon after the bill was rejected, they started going desk to desk, trying to persuade opponents to change their minds.

If lawmakers can get a measure to Gov. Rick Perry, he is likely to sign it. He has said that the current law causes good students to enroll in out-of-state colleges because they can't get into the state's flagship institutions.

The House vote was unexpected. The chamber voted 77-67 last week to approve an earlier version of the measure. And House members approved similar proposals during two previous legislative sessions.

"The difference between this session and last session may be that rural Republicans seem to have heard from their districts that the top 10 percent rule is helping them," said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who voted for limiting the law.

UT has sought limits for the past few years, arguing that too large a portion of its undergraduate enrollment is being determined by a single factor, squeezing out students with leadership skills, musical talent and other qualities who don't happen to rank high.

The university's fall 2006 freshman class had a larger portion, 71 percent, of students from Texas high schools admitted under the law than any previous class. That worked out to 66 percent of all UT freshmen. The automatic-admission law does not apply to students from other states.

UT is the only school among 35 public colleges and universities that sought relief from the 1997 law. But any school whose capacity is strained in the future could opt to restrict admission of top 10 percent students under the measure.

House rejection of the bill is a major defeat for UT President William Powers Jr., who spent considerable time testifying at legislative hearings and meeting with lawmakers this year. He argued that giving the university more flexibility in deciding whom to admit would allow it to recruit more Hispanic and black students.

Minority enrollment at UT has not changed significantly since 1997. Blacks went from 3.7 percent of undergraduates that year to 4.2 percent in 2006, according to university records. Hispanics made up 14.2 percent of the student body in 1997 and 17.1 percent in 2006.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who authored Senate Bill 101, described the measure as a compromise. Some lawmakers, especially members of minority groups to whom top 10 percent is a touchstone of merit-based equal opportunity, wanted no changes. Others, including some representing highly competitive suburban schools whose students increasingly felt shut out of UT, favored repeal.

House and Senate negotiators had to resolve differences between the chambers' two versions. The Senate had included an amendment by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, intended to award each top 10 percent student in the state a $1,500 scholarship annually. Morrison was resistant, arguing that it makes no sense to offer merit-based aid when the state has not set aside sufficient aid for students with financial need.

Lawmakers enacted the 1997 law in response to a 1996 federal court ruling involving UT that effectively banned affirmative action at public colleges and universities in Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in a case involving the University of Michigan that race and ethnicity could once again be considered, and UT resumed taking those characteristics into account.

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