California schools could consider race, gender in admissions


A man walks past a University of California sign at the entrance to the campus in Berkeley, Calif. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

California voters could decide this fall whether to allow state universities to consider the race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin of applicants when deciding admissions after the state Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment on Thursday.

The measure would repeal parts of Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to prohibit considering race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, contracting and education. Affirmative action opponents and then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) backed the 1996 push, which passed with 54 percent of the vote.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez, a Los Angeles Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said the percentage of minority students in the University of California and California State University systems has declined precipitously since Proposition 209 had passed.

In 1995, 38 percent of California high school graduates were minorities, while 21 percent of freshmen in the University of California system were minorities. By 2004, minorities accounted for 45 percent of high school graduates but just 18 percent of freshmen in the UC system.

“A blanket prohibition on consideration of race was a mistake in 1996, and we are still suffering the consequences from that initiative today,” Hernandez told reporters. “You cannot address inequality by refusing to acknowledge it.”

The proposal to repeal parts of Proposition 209 passed the state Senate, which Democrats dominate, on a party-line vote. If it passes the state House later this year, it would appear on the November 2014 ballot, where voters would weigh in.

The Associated Press reported that the actual makeup of this year’s freshman class in the UC system is a more nuanced story: African Americans and Latinos are dramatically underrepresented in the incoming class, but so are white students. Asian Americans, on the other hand, are over-represented, and make up the plurality of this year’s freshman class.

This year’s class is 36 percent Asian American, 28.1 percent white, 27.6 percent Latino and 4.2 percent African American. The percentage of Asian students is more than twice the percentage of Asians in California’s overall population. But Latino and African-American students represent an even smaller number of students at the state’s most competitive schools, the University of California-Berkley and UCLA.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed similar legislation in 2011, but a constitutional amendment would go straight to voters, without Brown’s involvement. Democrats in the state legislature have advanced a more aggressively liberal agenda in recent years than Brown has supported, especially on issues like gun control and pre-kindergarten. Brown vetoed several gun control measures last year, and this year he did not include pre-K in his proposed budget, even though it’s a top priority of legislative leaders.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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