Constitutional amendment aiming to repeal Prop. 209 passes education committee

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A state constitutional amendment that would allow California’s public education institutions to give preferential treatment based on race and ethnicity passed the state Senate Committee on Education July 3.

The amendment, SCA-5, seeks to amend the state constitution, eliminating language added in 1996 by Proposition 209, which prohibited state institutions from considering race, ethnicity, sex and national origin in public employment, contracting and education. If the amendment is passed by both legislative houses, it could be put before California voters as early as this November.

The amendment was introduced by Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, who in 2011 authored controversial senate bill SB 185, which also intended to repeal Prop. 209. The bill prompted prompted outcry and protests on the UC Berkeley campus, including a contentious bake sale that garnered national attention.

SB 185 passed both legislative houses but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who said he agreed with the goals of affirmative action but that it was up to the courts, not the legislature, to limit Prop. 209.

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.

“It’s important our universities and our high education system and at least our public system to be reflective or more reflective of the demographics,” said Meredith Vivian, director of government relations at the California State Student Association.

According to Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, a co-author of SCA-5, if the amendment is passed by voters, higher education institutions could consider race and ethnicity as factors in their admissions processes as long as they were within the narrow parameters tested and set by federal law.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. UT Austin tested some of those parameters, finding that universities could enact policies to improve diversity as long as they were narrowly tailored to educational benefits.

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.”

SCA-5 was proposed in December 2012 and has been referred to the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee. Hernandez said he intends for the amendment to be on the ballot this November, but if the amendment does not pass in time, he intends for it to be on the ballot in November 2016.

Block said a constitutional amendment sends a more powerful message than a bill, although it would be more time-consuming and expensive to pass because of election campaigning.

Contact Mary Zhou at [email protected]