The Austin Chronicle

Top 10% Debate in Bottom Percentile

By Richard Whittaker, March 26, 2009, 10:23am, Newsdesk

While the big debate on the Top 10% university admissions rule took place on Tuesday, the final vote out of the Senate took place Wednesday. The plan to cap admissions to 60% of any incoming class actually shored up its majority over night, rising from 23-8 to 24-7 (Sen. Mike Jackson, R-League City, flipped over night.)

As one seasoned lege watcher noted, Top 10% is a major issue that deserves a serious debate. But as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst kept reminding the floor on Tuesday, "This is not the time for debate." It was instead all a Q&A, which basically means senators asking questions to which they already knew the answers, and floating floor amendments.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, stalked the floor during proceedings, visibly frustrated that a massive and systemic change was being crowbarred through with little meaningful or thoughtful discussion. West proposed a four-year Sunset amendment to the bill (instead, a quasi-compromise of eight was approved) because "I want to remind you of your votes on tuition deregulation," he thundered. "I want to remind you over and over and over again about your vote on tuition deregulation. How many of you wish you hadn't voted that way?"

Bill author Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, agreed with West that tuition deregulation was another issue crying for review (with multiple bills pending, she said, "The issue has come back before us in spades.") However, she rejected his call for caution. The fact that the Senate was prepared to work to correct bad legislation, she argued, was a sign that the system really worked, and added, "When we see we've made a mistake, we correct that mistake."

When Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, tried to cap the percentage of foreign students in an incoming freshman class at 2009 levels, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, stepped up. Had Patrick (who is, after all, the vice-chair of Public Education) conferred with UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa about this proposal? No, he had not. How about UT President Bill Powers? No. Anyone at UT? No. "We're kind of running on the fly here," Estes said, adding that he was nervous that major changes were being tacked on with no evidence to back up claims of their efficacy or necessity.

The arguments for reform have been pretty nebulous, and these days seem to revolve around the idea that the other 90% of the state is ill-served, or that the rules tie universities' hands on admissions. Powers has been reduced to claiming that it might endanger UT football (Oh noes, Bill, don't endanger that precious 40% football graduation rate.) Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, summed up the mood for several on the floor about the Shapiro revisions. Since admissions to UT under the Top 10% law have tripled in his district since the current law came in 1998, he said, "I can't go with your [proposals] and take a chance."

Now the bill heads over the House, but as Shapiro noted, almost exactly the same bill went to the House in 2007, and it got voted down after conference committee. When West was asked on the floor about the chances of history repeating itself, he shrugged and replied, "Who knows?"

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