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Unequal Public Schools Makes Affirmative Action Essential for Equal Opportunity

Authors: Gary Orfield and Danielle Jarvie
Date Published: October 28, 2020

The brief first presents new facts on the extraordinary segregation of Black and Latino students in the state’s public schools. Second, it shows that those groups are doubly segregated by race and poverty at the most educationally unsuccessful schools. These children are, on average, from families with far lower income and wealth and with parents with significantly less education. School is their chance to break the cycle of inequality but they are highly isolated in the state’s weakest schools, with very few having the opportunity to attend the competitive schools which are the most equipped to prepare students for access to a very competitive higher education system. The playing field is highly unequal — so many of the advantages that come to students from more privileged families do not reflect individual skill or merit in winning the race, but a much better starting point within the unequal public schools.
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Often debates over affirmative action assume all students have an equal chance to prepare for college entrance exams. This brief shows that the preparation access is systematically unequal by race and provides new statistics on the extent of segregation by race and poverty for Calfifornia’s non-white students. It uses state testing and enrollment data to show that black, Latino and America Indian students are concentrated in the most low-achieving schools, while Whites and Asians attend the most high-achieving schools. This produces a very unequal path to college, making affirmative action necessary to level the playing field.


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