SACRAMENTO, Calif.—The fight over affirmative action in California’s higher education system is coming back.
Under a proposed constitutional amendment that passed the Senate on Thursday, voters would reconsider affirmative action programs at the University of California and California State University systems on the November ballot. SCA5 would remove certain prohibitions in place since 1996, when voters approved Proposition 209.
That initiative made California the first state to ban the use of race and ethnicity in public university admissions as well as state hiring and contracting.
The amendment under consideration in the Legislature would delete provisions in Proposition 209 that prohibit the state from giving preferential treatment in public education to individuals and groups based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
“A blanket prohibition on consideration of race was a mistake in 1996, and we are still suffering the consequences from that initiative today,” said Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Covina, who carried the measure. “You cannot address inequality by refusing to acknowledge it.”
The proposed amendment does not mandate an affirmative action program or set a quota, Hernandez said. It also applies only to education and not employment.
Hernandez joined other Democrats in arguing that recruitment of minorities has slipped at the UC and CSU systems because of the affirmative action ban.
In 1995, minority students accounted for 38 percent of high school graduates and 21 percent of those entering as University of California freshmen, Hernandez said. By 2004, they made up 45 percent of high school graduates but just 18 percent of incoming UC freshmen, he said, adding the gap is growing.
Republican lawmakers opposed the amendment and blamed the drop-off on poor performance by K-12 schools.
“This bill, the unintended consequence is that it actually allows our public schools to use race and gender and others to discriminate against students,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar. “Is that really where we want to go?”
The measure passed on a party-line, 27-9 vote and now goes to the Assembly, which also is dominated by Democrats.
“Prop. 209 creates a barrier for people of color to access higher education,” said Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego. “With these prohibitions we have seen a stark reduction in access to higher education by people of color.”
Racial admission data tell a more specific story: While blacks and Latinos remain underrepresented, especially in the UC system, Asians dominate admissions at the UC’s most prestigious campuses and are enrolled in numbers far greater than their proportion of California’s population.
Whites also are underrepresented in the UC system, according to state population and university figures.
UC’s 2013 freshman class was 36 percent Asian, 28.1 percent white, 27.6 percent Latino and 4.2 percent black, according to UC data. The representation of Asians was more than double their share of California’s total population. At some campuses, including UC San Diego and UC Irvine, Asians account for more than 45 percent of admitted freshmen this year.
California also has undergone a tremendous shift since voters passed Proposition 209 nearly two decades ago. Latinos overtook whites this year as California’s dominant group, and there is no majority racial or ethnic population in the state.
The state has seen a sharp drop in the proportion of blacks and Latinos at the system’s most competitive campuses, particularly UC Berkeley and UCLA, in the years since votes approved Proposition 209.
University of California leaders supported lifting the ban when they filed a friend of the court brief in 2012 while the U.S. Supreme Court was considering a challenge to the University of Texas’ consideration of race in undergraduate admissions.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill by Hernandez in 2011, saying that while he agreed with the bill’s goal, the courts should decide the limits of Proposition 209. The Legislature can put a constitutional amendment before voters without the governor’s support.
After California outlawed affirmative action, voters in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington state and Nebraska approved similar bans with similar results.
“We need to ensure that the students reflect our changing population,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said the state should instead limit admissions of university students from other nations to create more room for California children.
“It doesn’t create more space in our colleges and universities,” Anderson said of SCA5. “It just rearranges the chairs on the Titanic.”