While Californians are focused on surviving the COVID-19 lockdown, some state legislators are using the crisis as cover for a stealth effort to overturn Proposition 209, the 1996 voter-passed initiative that prevents government discrimination based on race and other classifications. Not only has this effort been largely hidden from the public, it ignores the fact that many of the challenges facing minority groups stem not from Prop. 209 but from the failure of the government public education system.
Adopting language in the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act, Proposition 209 says, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
The legislation, ACA 5, introduced by Assembly members Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, Mike Gipson, D-Compton, and Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, would place a measure on the November ballot to reverse Prop. 209. As justification, ACA 5 lays out a number of very dubious claims.
For example, ACA 5 claims that Prop. 209 “has had a devastating impact on minority equal opportunity and access to California’s publicly funded institutions of higher education” and that “diversity within public educational institutions has been stymied.” Yet, the reality is that since Prop. 209’s passage, the percentage of underrepresented minority enrolment in the University of California system rose from 15 percent in 1999 to 26 percent in 2019.
It is true that young people from underrepresented minority groups face difficult challenges getting into the UC system, but the culprit is not Prop. 209. Rather, the poor performance of California’s public education system is to blame.
A foundational requirement for admission to the UC system is that students must take a set of designated college-preparatory courses called the A-G requirement. In a recent letter to the UC Board of Regents, UC President Janet Napolitano acknowledged that “the biggest contributor to underrepresentation at UC is that students do not fulfill A-G subject requirements for admissions.”
Further, a UC Academic Senate task force found that there was “a 22-percentage point gap between the share of [underrepresented minorities] in the grade 12 class and the pool of California resident students admitted by UC.” Most of that gap, however, could be explained by factors “that precede admissions.” In other words, not the impact of Prop. 209 during the admissions process, but the practices and performance of the K-12 school system before students even got to the admissions process.
According to the task force, “The most significant contributor was lack of eligibility as a result of failure to complete all required A-G courses with a C or better.” Also, “lower high school graduation rates for [underrepresented minorities]” and “lower application rates” were other key reasons for the opportunity gap. Indeed, according to the California Department of Education, in 2017-18, 43 percent of Hispanics and less than 40 percent of African-American students met the A-G requirement. In contrast, 55 percent of whites and 75 percent of Asian Americans met the college preparatory course-taking requirement.
Also, CDE data from 2014-15, the latest figures available, show that the graduation rate for African Americans was less than 71 percent, while the rate for Hispanics was 81 percent. In contrast, the graduation rate for whites was 88 percent and for Asian Americans it was 93 percent. Further, according to data from the 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress exams, California public schools are failing underrepresented minorities. On the eighth-grade math tests, only 10 percent of African Americans scored at or above the proficient level while only 15 percent of Hispanics scored proficient.
On the eighth-grade reading exam, only 10 percent of African Americans and 19 percent of Hispanics scored at the proficient level. No wonder then that overwhelming majorities of African Americans and Hispanics want the ability to choose a school outside of the California public school system. According to a 2017 Public Policy Institute of California poll, 73 percent of African Americans and 69 percent of Hispanics supported tax-funded school vouchers that could be used to pay for the tuition at private schools.
If legislators really want to address the problem of under-representation of minority groups in higher education, then instead of attacking California’s anti-discrimination law and engaging in divisive identity politics, they should tackle the bigger and more important challenge of improving K-12 performance and giving parents school-choice tools that offer their children a better chance to succeed in life.