There was a terrific debate on the floor of the Texas Senate Tuesday, the kind that can make you fall in love with politics. Really, I mean that. Great debates are like watching the strategy in play at a tennis tournament or chess match.
The subject was Texas' 10 percent rule, which took effect back in 1997 after a federal appeals court prevented the University of Texas from considering race when looking at student admissions. (Since that ruling, the Supreme Court has restored allowing schools to use race as one of many factors in considering student admissions.) The rule works this way: Texas students who place in the top 10 percent of their high school class can gain automatic admission to a Texas university of their choice.
Tuesday's debate was about capping the number of students a university can admit under that rule so, essentially UT-Austin and perhaps A&M in the future, don't get overwhelmed by 10 percenters. About 80 percent of UT's freshmen class this year comes from the top 10 percent of Texas high schools. UT officials predict that the 2009 entering class could come entirely from top 10 percent grads.
That predicament neither benefits the school nor the state, as our editorial said Sunday. UT-Austin should have some kind of flexibility in determining its freshman class. And the state would benefit from a cap on 10 percenters because UT was not chartered to be a school only for elite students. In fact, one of the best observations of the day came from GOP Sen. Steve Ogden, who talked about UT in effect becoming a private university.
That point was made in an exchange with Ogden's fellow Republican, Florence Shapiro, who authored the change in the 10 percent rule. His back-and-forth with Shapiro on the floor was one of many the Plano senator had with colleagues during about six hours of debate.
And she did a masterful job answering questions, fending off bad amendments, accepting good ones and putting up with a lot of jabbing from colleagues. She kept calm, poised and factual during the discussions, some of which were enough to drive anyone over the edge. She particularly kept her cool answering the same question over and over from Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio.
Several amendments were offered, but only three really affected the rule. The first set at 60 percent the number of 10 percent students that a university's freshman class can contain. The second established a scholarship fund to help eligible 10 percenters actually afford a Texas university. And the third put an eight-year limit on all these reforms. After that, the law goes back to its original state.
What was interesting was watching minority legislators like Dallas Democrat Royce West arguing to keep the 10 percent rule as is, with no 60 percent cap. In effect, West and others were arguing that UT should become a school that only serves elite students. Meanwhile, Republicans like Shapiro were arguing that it should serve a broader mass of students. Interesting reversal there.
Fortunately, an amendment by Republican Sen. Dan Patrick was beat back, but only by a few votes. Late in the afternoon, the radio talk show host offered a proposal that would cap the percentage of foreign and out-of-state students at UT-Austin to however many are enrolled today. (Something like seven percent of the UT undergraduate student body is from another state or country.)
He had a point: If only so many top 10 percent students could get into UT in the future, he didn't want the other slots going to a greater number of non-Texas students. The school should serve its state first.
True, but the Texas numbers are already high: 93 percent of UT's undergraduate student body is from Texas. So, it isn't like Texas kids are being ignored.
Also, several senators, including Democrat Judith Zaffirini, eloquently described the exposure Texas kids get from a diverse student body. And that's particularly important in the kind of economy in which we live.
Anyway, his amendment went down, which was good. And the Senate rightly put some limits on the 10 percent rule.
The action now moves to the House, where GOP Rep. Dan Branch will sponsor a Shapiro-like bill. I bet the debate there will be even livelier. It certainly was the last time the House tried to revise the rule back in 2007. Plus, there are 150 House members and only 31 senators. The chances for the House to heat up over this one are pretty good.
I can't wait. It will be like watching Connors and McEnroe in their heyday