California lawmakers push off college affirmative action bill

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California voters will not decide in the 2014 election whether race, gender or ethnicity ought to be considered in college admissions, after lawmakers postponed deliberation on a bill that intends to amend the state constitution.

Spurred by an onslaught of opposition to the proposal, Assembly Speaker John Perez announced Monday that he was sending Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 back to the senate — without any action on behalf of the lower assembly — at the request of Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, the author of the bill.

Perez said although the bill addressed issues pertinent to most members of the legislature, some lawmakers articulated qualms about the bill’s logistics and its effect on potential college applicants. Certain constituents have expressed concern — for example, some members of the Asian American community worried that the amendment would ostracize them in college admissions.

In response, three prominent Asian American senators — Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; Carol Liu, D-La Canada Flintridge; and Leland Yee, D-San Francisco — wrote a letter last week imploring Hernandez to hold SCA-5 until “he has an opportunity to meet with affected communities and attempt to build a consensus.”

“We felt it was necessary to have a discussion based on facts (before further action),” Hernandez said in a press release.

The proposed amendment seeks to overturn Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that prohibits the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in state institutions. Following the passage of Prop. 209, UC Berkeley saw a significant drop in the number of minority students admitted to the university.

If the bill is ratified, the amendment would be placed before voters as a ballot measure. Perez expects that the delay won’t upset the current timeline and that a proposition will be on the 2016 ballot.

“I believe in affirmative action, and I believe it is an important tool to bring diversity,” Yee said. “I don’t want anyone to believe that SCA would negatively impact any community, and I asked (Hernandez and Perez) to have a discussion so that people are all on the same page.”

Hoping to placate anxieties provoked by the measure, Perez called for the creation of a nonpartisan and bicameral task force that will discuss issues related to the comprehensive access to higher education. He intends to include members from all three segments of higher education in California as well as legislators, academics and other key stakeholders.

“It is important that we engage in a very broad conversation … so that we can fully address the issues that our universities are dealing with and give them the tools to expand access and not retract it,” Perez said in a statement.

Some UC Berkeley students have expressed concern about the amendment. In particular, ASUC presidential hopeful David Douglass, who is running with the Defend Affirmative Action Party, doubted the lawmakers’ intent to place the amendment before voters, though he supports affirmative action policies. He debated ASUC Senator Solomon Nwoche about such policies Friday.

Nwoche, who is against affirmative action policies, said that in the long run, the amendment might “actually hurt those students who the campus is recruiting as a whole.”

But representatives from the campus organization REACH! — an Asian Pacific Islander recruitment and retention center — support the measure and think the basis for opposition to SCA-5 is rooted in misinformation.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about SCA-5,’” said Victor Phu, a UC Berkeley junior and REACH! associate director of retention. “(But) Berkeley is engaged in a comprehensive review of admission. We want to take race, sex, ethnicity and national origin into consideration with admissions.”

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted REACH! associate director of retention Victor Phu as stating “We want to take race, sex, ethnicity and sexual orientation into consideration with admissions.” In fact, Phu said “We want to take race, sex, ethnicity and national origin into consideration with admissions.”