A hasty hearing on a constitutional amendment that would overturn Prop. 209

By Wenyuan Wu, Special to CalMatters

A controversial bill intended to re-introduce government preferences, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, is scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday in the California Legislature, giving the public a deliberately short 24-hour notice.  

Built on partial evidence and shallow prescriptions for an unrealistic utopia, ACA-5 is in essence divisive and discriminatory. Its overarching goal to undo Proposition 209, a bill that won the popular vote in 1996 and has withstood legal scrutiny over time, is misguided in that ACA-5 proposes instant but wrong solutions to persistent social ills.

After postponing a vote on ACA-5 in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, California legislators decided to reschedule the hearing for Tuesday morning in the Assembly Committee of Public Employment and Retirement. ACA-5 was introduced by Assemblymembers Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Mike Gipson, D-Compton.

For an amendment of tremendous long-term consequences yet little relevance to California’s urgent tasks to combat COVID-19, this hasty development amidst a partial legislative reopening signals ACA-5’s controversial nature.

Simply look at ACA-5’s arguments on public education.

 ACA-5’s text misleadingly portrays a grim picture of educational prospects for black Americans, Latino Americans and women. According to the bill’s proponents, as a direct result of Proposition 209, these disadvantaged groups have experienced abhorrent discrimination and disparity in education. Specifically, Proposition 209 allegedly “reduces the graduation rates of students of color” and has led to a loss of diversity on the state’s college campuses. These fabricated claims, based on cherry-picked facts, are politicized rhetoric.

From a broad perspective of statewide public higher education, underrepresented student groups have experienced improvements in graduation and enrollment following the passage of Proposition 209. In the University of California system, 4-year graduation rates of underrepresented racial minorities rose from 31.3% during the 1995-97 period, preceding Prop.-209, to 36.6% during 1998-2000, then to 43.3% during 2001-03. In 2014, underrepresented racial minorities’ 4-year graduation rate rose to a record high of 55.1%. The 6-year graduation rate has fared even better: 66.5% in 1998 and 75.1% in 2013. Minority admissions at UC exceeded those of 1996 both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all admissions.

Latino admissions went from 15.4% (5,744 students) in 1996 to 23% (14,081) in 2010; Asian-American admissions rose from 28.8% (11,085) to 37.47% (22,877), while black admissions from 4% (1,628) to 4.2% (2,624). In 1999, underrepresented racial minorities’ enrollment at the UC system stood at a meager 15%, while in 2019 this figure increased to 26%. ACA-5’s claim that “since the passage of Proposition 209, diversity within public educational institutions has been stymied” is simply untrue.

 Furthermore, ACA-5 baselessly accuses Proposition 209 of banning California universities from “engaging in targeted outreach and extra efforts to matriculate high-performing minority students.” In fact, UC founded the Early Academic Outreach Program in 1976 to increase enrollment of “students from underserved schools and communities.” Over the decades, EAOP has evolved into one of  UC’s largest student partnership programs, adding to its “commitment to diversity and inclusion.” 

Such a commitment, apparently undeterred by Prop. 209, has rendered six UC campuses the status of Hispanic Serving Institutions. Also, four UC campuses were the 2015 recipients of Insight into Diversity Magazine’s “Higher Education Excellence in Diversity” awards. In 2012, UC established the UC-HBCU Initiative to boost connections with historically black colleges and universities. 

In addition, UC also boasts its Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program to help disadvantaged students develop STEM skills and the Puente Project to improve college-preparatory English skills for Latino students. The assertion that outreach efforts are hampered by Prop. 209 is simply unfounded.

Given ACA-5’s unsubstantiated claims on racial gaps, the controversies surrounding the new bill must be sufficiently examined and debated in public discourse. California legislators’ rushed hearing for the bill, at a time when public resources and policy talents should have been collectively tapped for crisis response, is problematic at its very core.

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Wenyuan Wu is the director of administration for Asian American Coalition for Education, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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