The Columbia Journalism Review and the Texas Tribune convened a group of readers to look at how education equality is covered in Texas.
The lunchtime forum in Austin–which included professors, education nonprofit leaders, a high-school guidance counselor, and two members of the Texas House of Representatives–met in a “book club for news” organized by the Texas Tribune and CJR. Tribune education reporter Matthew Watkins and CJR Editor in Chief Kyle Pope led the conversation.
The discussion was part of an ongoing collaboration between CJR and local nonprofit news organizations to listen to readers’ views on local issues and how they’re reported. Much of Friday’s discussion centered around Texas’s “10 percent rule,” which guarantees admission to most state colleges and universities for any high-school student who finishes in the top 10 percent of his or her class.
The rule was conceived of as a way to address racial and economic disparities. In that respect, it’s had some effect. As Watkins and Neena Satija documented in their three-part deep dive on the topic, the rule raised the number of black and Hispanic college students in Texas, though to a level that’s still far below their proportion of the population. The rule has also had some unintended consequences, as the Tribune noted in its series, and as attendees of the forum highlighted.
“A lot of kids as young as middle school are taking classes just based on GPA,” attorney Haseeb Abdullah said. “They’re not doing sports anymore, fine arts, the holistic educational experience. I haven’t seen a lot written about that perspective.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said he wants to change the 10 percent rule. But guests at the event voiced fears that such a move would set Texas back when it comes to equal opportunity.
“This year, [the University of Texas] decided to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the time when the first black UT students were allowed there in 1956,” said T.L. Wyatt, publisher and editor in chief of Austin’s longstanding African-American newspaper, The Villager. “I didn’t see a whole lot about it in the media. In 1956, they couldn’t live in dormitories, they couldn’t eat in the cafeteria, they couldn’t go to the movies….If you took the 10 percent rule away, we’d go right back to that period.”
State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat whose district includes east Austin, said the rule is important for the state as a whole. “If they’re not going to university, the economic future not only of those families and those kids but the entire state is kind of at risk. So doing away with it would be pretty traumatic,” Rodriguez said.
Attendees added that they would like to see expanded coverage of college affordability issues. Representative Donna Howard–also a Democrat representing Austin–said it’s an area where the Tribune has helped to provide the public valuable data, informing civic discussion.
Tom Melecki, CEO of student financial advisors College Affordability Solutions, noted that the affordability problem affects great swathes of high-school students and their families–not just the lowest income brackets. “The average total cost of going to a Texas top public university…is 39 percent of median household income per year,” he said, “which means that the middle class needs assistance…to go to a public college or university in Texas.”
While the state’s approach to resolving educational disparities may be unique, Pope said, “This is a national problem. Every statehouse reporter, in every state in America, is trying to figure out how to cover this.”
Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.