Affirmative action ruling could be far-reaching

Eckes: impact would hit K-12 and higher education

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court will revisit the heated topic of affirmative action in higher education when it hears oral arguments Wednesday, Oct. 10, in Fisher v. the University of Texas. A reversal of lower court rulings could be felt not just on college campuses but in school districts across the country, says Indiana University School of Education faculty member and school law expert Suzanne Eckes.

The case results from a challenge to admissions policies at the university. Abigail Fisher, a white Texas resident, claimed she was denied admission to the University of Texas in Austin because of her race, while less-qualified minority applicants were admitted. A federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the university. But many are predicting the Supreme Court will put new restrictions on the consideration of race.

If the court overturns or limits its Grutter v. Bollinger decision, universities throughout the U.S. will need to adjust their admissions policies, and the number of minority students at some universities will likely decrease, says Eckes, associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the IU School of Education. And there will be implications for public elementary and secondary schools as well.

Eckes said the court is likely to first re-examine whether maintaining a diverse student body is a "compelling governmental interest," and then whether the Texas admissions policy was "narrowly tailored" to meet that goal. While the focus is on higher education, Eckes notes that the court used the same standard in 2007 when it ruled that K-12 desegregation plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle were unconstitutional. At that time, four justices wanted to outlaw any consideration of race.

"Fisher will certainly have an impact on K-12 education, especially if the court no longer finds diversity to be a compelling state interest in education," Eckes said.

In an article written with IU's David Nguyen and Jessica Ulm, Eckes argues the court should draw on social-science research on the value of diversity in education. They say that, in cases from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to recent decisions on gay rights and other topics, incorporating research findings has made for better law and increased understanding of important topics.

"We urge the court to incorporate social science into its decision of the Fisher case not only to better understand the value of a diverse education system, but also to better educate the public about the societal and educational benefits of diversity," they write.