California Voters Could Get Another Vote on Affirmative Action in Ed

In 1996, California overwhelmingly voted to approve Proposition 209, which prohibited the state’s public colleges and universities from using race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. Now, state Senator Ed Hernandez is fighting to put this decision in front of voters one more time.

Hernandez introduced a state constitutional amendment SCA-5 which would once again allow public education institutions to consider factors like race. The amendment was approved by the Senate Committee on Education earlier this month and now heads to the full chamber for a vote. If SCA-5 is approved by both of California’s legislative houses, it can go in front of voters as early as this fall.

Mary Zhou of the Daily Californian writes that this isn’t Hernandez’ first attempt to bring down Prop 209 — last year he introduced SB 185 which would have overturned Prop 209. The measure passed the Legislature with wide majorities but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Brown explained that in his view, determining the validity of Prop 209 should be left to the courts and not to the lawmakers.

Hernandez said he proposed the constitutional amendment so the decision on Prop. 209 would go to the people instead of the governor.

“I think the voters will be more open this time around than in 1996,” Hernandez said. “Let’s compare the gay marriage issue and some of the other social issues and look at how the country is changing.”

A survey released by The Public Policy Institute of California in 2011 found that 75 percent of respondents in California thought it either somewhat or very important to have a racially diverse student body in public universities.

If SCA-5 is approved, that would open the door for universities to consider race as a factor when making admissions decisions, but what such a policy would even look like is hard to envision. In a decision handed down last month in Fisher v. UT Austin, the Supreme Court substantially narrowed the standards such affirmative action policies must meet in order to be constitutional. According to the decision, race can be used as a factor when the schools in question can’t use any alternative means to achieve similar level of diversity.

However, Ward Connerly, who is president of the American Civil Rights Coalition and was a staunch advocate for Prop. 209 when it passed in 1996, said that affirmative action policies are not the solution to underrepresentation of minority groups in higher education.

“You gotta start much earlier in the life cycle of the student,” Connerly said. “It’s the flaw of families, of cultures — a number of things that shouldn’t be corrected by giving some kids extra points or lowering the standard.”