By Alicia W. Stewart, CNN
(CNN) - In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, ordering that federally funded projects "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."
Five decades later, a young white woman and a Texas school's admissions policy stand central to a monumental Supreme Court case. The justices began hearing oral arguments Wednesday over the constitutionality of racial preferences in consideration of the students it accepts.
It could change how schools determine whom they let in and whom they keep out.
Affirmative action began as a simple idea to expand equality and has morphed into a charged and divisive topic.
What is affirmative action, and how is it different from when it began?
Here are five things to know. What would you add? Let us know in the comments below.
By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
(CNN) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in an important affirmative-action case - whether the University of Texas' race-conscious admissions policy violates the rights of some white applicants.
The justices will decide whether and when skin color and ethnicity can be used to create a diverse college campus. CNN gathered comments from three current or former students with a direct interest in the case. Their comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Abigail Fisher, plaintiff in the Supreme Court appeal
Fisher was denied admission to the state's flagship university and filed a lawsuit challenging the selection process. She graduated this year from Louisiana State University, and issued a statement of her views, through her legal team.
FISHER: "I dreamt of going to UT (the University of Texas) ever since the second grade. My dad went there, my sister went there, and tons of friends and family. And it was a tradition I wanted to continue.
"There were people in my (high school) class with lower grades who weren't in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT. And the only difference between us was the color of our skin. I took a ton of AP (advanced placement) classes, I studied hard and did my homework, and I made the honor roll. I was in extracurricular activities - I played the cello, I was in math club, and I volunteered. I put in the work I thought was necessary to get into UT.
"I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does this set for others? A good start to stopping discrimination would be getting rid of the boxes on applications - male, female, race, whatever. Those don't tell admissions people what type of student you are, or how involved you are. All they do is put you into a box, a theoretical box.FULL STORY
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - American schools recognize African-American History Month and Women's History Month. This year, for the first time, two school districts are celebrating LGBT History Month, which started seven years ago and kicked off this year on October 1.
The Broward County school district in Florida signed a resolution in September in support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender Americans. Last week, the Los Angeles school district, the nation's second-largest, also signed on. The two districts have more than 1 million students.
"I want LGBT students to see their education as the diamond, their joy in their life rather than their trauma,” said Judy Chiasson, diversity coordinator for Los Angeles schools.
“Schools have an obligation to present the diversity of our communities," she said. "There are many different types of families; we want all of our families to be recognized in our schools.”
Last year, California passed the FAIR Education Act, which requires public schools to teach LGBT-inclusive history.
California law already required state public schools to teach about the contributions of Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Asian-Americans, among other groups.
Democratic Sen. Mark Leno, who sponsored the legislation, said at the time that research shows that students who learn about LGBT people are more likely to report that their schools are inclusive and fair.
However, the bill drew ire from religious and conservative groups, like the lobby Traditional Values Coalition.
The icons whom Equality Forum highlights with online educational resources and videos are, said Executive Director Malcolm Lazin, the Martin Luther King Jr.s of the LGBT world.
"The LGBT community is the only minority community that is not taught in schools," Lazin said. "So no wonder homophobia exists."
He called the recognition in the two school districts a "giant step in public school embracing LGBT inclusion and respect.” LGBT month will help children learn about the the role of gays and lesbians, he said, and help "break the cocoon of invisibility" for Americans who for many years have remained under the mainstream radar.
But 14,000 school districts have yet to adopt LGBT month, which this year kicked off with a road dedication ceremony honoring lesbian activist Barbara Gittings in her hometown of Philadelphia. A red sign heralding Barbara Gittings Way was placed under the name of Locust Street between 12th and 13th in the city's "Gayborhood."
Gittings edited the first lesbian publication in America. She persuaded the Library of Congress to include gay and lesbian books in the nation's card catalogs and libraries. And, with Frank Kameny, she successfully challenged the American Psychiatric Association to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness.
Gittings, said Lazin, was a woman who came out in public to fight for gay rights at a time when many gay Americans did not even dare to come out in private.
By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
"Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free" - from the Bible (John 8:32), inscribed on the facade of the the University of Texas at Austin Main Building ..."Equal Justice Under Law" - inscription above the U.S. Supreme Court Building
(CNN) - Heman Marion Sweatt and Abigail Noel Fisher both wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin.
Both claimed their race was a primary reason for their rejection. Both filed civil rights lawsuits, and the Supreme Court ultimately agreed to hear their separate appeals - filed more than half a century apart.
Their cases share much in common - vexing questions of competition, fairness, and demographics - and what role government should play when promoting political and social diversity.
But it is the key difference between these plaintiffs - separated by three generations and a troubled road to "equality" - that now confronts the nation's highest court: Sweatt was black, Fisher is white.
Sweatt's 1950 case produced a landmark court ruling that set the stage for the eventual end of racial segregation in public facilities.
Fisher's case will be heard by the justices Wednesday. The question here could come down to whether a majority on the bench believes affirmative action has run its course - no longer necessary in a country that has come far to confront its racially divisive past, a country that has a president who is African-American.
"There's a good chance that affirmative action, at least in the case of education, is on the chopping block," said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington appellate attorney and SCOTUSblog.com editor.FULL STORY
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - Basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal was once asked about his favorite drink: a blend of strawberries, blueberries, organic apple juice and ice.
That's how he'd prefer college students drink. But they don't.
About four in five college students drink alcohol, the National Institutes for Health estimate. Half of those who drink also binge drink, meaning that they consume four or more drinks at a time.
But binge drinking patterns are not the same everywhere.
By Michael Pearson and Holly Yan, CNN
(CNN) - Chicago public school teachers began manning picket lines instead of classrooms Monday, launching the first teacher strike in the city in 25 years over pay, benefits and other issues.
The strike, announced Sunday night, left about 350,000 students without a school to attend and parents scrambling to find alternatives.
The school district has opened 144 of its 578 schools for part of the day to provide a safe environment and meals to children in need. Also, dozens of churches and civic organizations have stepped into the vacuum to provide activities for the thousands of suddenly idle students. And police, expecting an uptick in trouble from kids on the streets, pulled officers from desk duty to increase patrols.
The union that represents nearly 30,000 teachers and support staff in the nation's third-largest school district called the strike after negotiators failed to reach a contract agreement with school administrators despite 10 months of negotiations.
Teachers say the biggest issues leading to the impasse are maintaining their health benefits and job security, as well as improving classroom conditions.
As many as 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs under a new evaluation system based on standardized test scores implemented by the school district, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said.
By Donna Krache, CNN
(CNN) – A recently released study by the Brookings Institution at Harvard has stirred up the debate over school choice and vouchers.
In some districts and states, parents can get vouchers to pay for their children’s education. Parents may choose to send their children to religious or private schools using the vouchers as payment for tuition. Much of the research surrounding the effectiveness of vouchers centers on more immediate outcomes, such as test scores.
The Brookings study was based on data collected on students who were recipients of vouchers from the privately funded New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation program. In 1997, the foundation offered three-year scholarships of up to $1,400 per year to 1,000 low-income families whose children were either entering first grade or were already in public schools in second through fifth grades. The Brookings study claims to be the first that used “a randomized experiment to measure the impact of school vouchers on college enrollment.” It also claims to be one of only a few studies to track longer-term outcomes, years after students received their first vouchers.
Overall, the study found no effect on college enrollment, except among African-Americans, where there was significant impact.
“Our estimates indicate that using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African-Americans by 24%,” say Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson, the study’s authors.
The study also indicates that enrollment rates in “selective colleges” more than doubled among African-American students who received vouchers.
By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
(CNN) – Latino student populations have been on an upward trajectory in the U.S. for decades, and a report released Monday says the group’s growth reached record levels last year, both in public schools and colleges.
The number of 18- to 24-year-old Latinos in college topped 2 million in 2011, accounting for 16.5% of all enrollments, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center. The number means Latino representation in U.S. colleges and universities is on par with the percentage of Latinos among the U.S. population, also 16.5%.
Record numbers of Latinos are also finishing college, with 112,000 earning associate degrees and 140,000 earning bachelor’s degrees. Pew states both statistics are new highs, yet Latinos still lag behind whites (1.2 million bachelor’s degrees and 553,000 associates) and blacks (165,000 bachelor’s and 114,000 associates) in degree attainment.
“Some of the growth in Hispanic college enrollments simply reflects continued growth in the nation’s Hispanic population – since 1972, the number of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds has grown nearly five-fold, rising from 1.3 million then to 6 million in 2011,” the report said.
However, population alone cannot explain the numbers, as eligibility to attend college also is a factor. In 2011, 76% of Latinos age 18 to 24 had completed high school, another record and a 3.5% improvement over 2010 numbers.
At the pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade level, Latinos made up 23.9% of students in 2011, another record, according to the report from the nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.
By Mariano Castillo and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
(CNN) - James E. Holmes is described by those who know him as a doctoral student who is clean-cut, quiet and responsible, an image difficult to reconcile with the same man who police allege opened fire in a crowded movie theater.
Days after the 24-year-old was arrested on suspicion of a mass shooting at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, the portrait of Holmes that is emerging is as limited as it is confusing.
Pictures obtained of Holmes show a bright-eyed young man, who is tall with dark hair, which contrasts the description of the man by a law enforcement official who said he dyed his hair red and identified himself as "the Joker" to authorities after he was arrested early Friday morning for allegedly shooting people during a screening of the new Batman movie.
By all accounts, Holmes is a bright student. He entered the University of California, Riverside, in 2006 as a scholarship student and graduated with highest honors with a bachelor's degree in neuroscience in 2010.