SACRAMENTO — Bowing to pressure from within their party, Democrats in the Legislature on Monday abandoned an attempt to repeal California’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action in the state’s higher education system.
Assembly Speaker John Perez said he does not have enough support to place the constitutional amendment before voters in November. Instead, he said lawmakers will form a task force to study the issue of access to higher education.
California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, banning the use of race and ethnicity in public university admissions, state hiring and contracting. The amendment, SCA5, was initiated to address the drop-off in black and Latino college admissions, primarily in the University of California system. The fall in enrollment was especially pronounced in California’s most competitive public schools, UC Berkeley and UCLA.
Sen. Ed Hernandez, the amendment’s author, asked Perez to spike the effort until there was broader debate. It drew loud opposition from Republicans and Asians, whose enrollment in the UC system has been more than double their share of California’s total population since the ban on racial preferences took effect.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, so I’m going to slow it down to make sure that everybody, every concern is heard,” Hernandez told reporters, saying that groups falsely claimed his measure would lead to racial quotas.
Hernandez, D-Covina, stands by his proposal to allow schools to consider race and ethnicity and says experts will back him up.
“Stanford, USC, Harvard, Yale — they are actively recruiting the best and brightest minority students and diversifying their campuses, but yet it’s a bad thing when we talk about it at the University of California or CSU?” Hernandez said.
But Perez says the lead-up to SCA5 didn’t include enough discussion of other factors affecting minorities’ access to higher education, including rising costs.
“It’s really driven most by my interest in making sure we come up with the best policy outcomes,” Perez told reporters during a news conference about the task force. “As it’s currently written, I don’t think SCA5 gives us that.”
The amendment drew a fierce backlash within the Asian community. Many Asians told lawmakers they worried that reinstating racial preferences in the UC and California State University admissions process would leave their children shut out of the college of their choice.
After hearing thousands of concerns in recent weeks, three Democratic Asian senators who voted for the constitutional amendment when it passed the Senate on a party-line vote in January wrote to Perez last week asking that he not proceed with debate.
“As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” Sens. Ted Lieu of Torrance, Carol Liu of La Canada Flintridge and Leland Yee of San Francisco said in their letter, dated March 11.
Yee told reporters Monday that he still supports affirmative action, but he wants the task force and experts to help Asian-Americans understand why Proposition 209 should be unraveled before referring the matter to voters.
Perez said the letter was not his primary reason for shelving the matter, saying he is “rarely driven” by viewpoints of lawmakers in the other chamber.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a news release that he supports a “calm and intelligent” discussion on affirmative action.
“I am deeply concerned anytime one ethnic group turns on another,” he said. “Our state’s history and the continued challenges we face to improve relations between people are far too important to see a wedge driven between our diverse communities.”
Perez said the task force would include lawmakers, academic researchers and school representatives and make policy recommendations about minority access to higher education more broadly. SCA5 leaves prohibitions on racial preferences in state hiring and contracting in place.
Internal Democratic dissent might have been just one of Perez’s concerns in putting the issue on hold.
The political calculations for this year’s election season also are in play. The proposed constitutional amendment was a point of discussion at this past weekend’s California GOP convention.
California Republican Party vice chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon told reporters Saturday that her party’s candidates have been seizing on disaffected Asian voters across the state.
“It is just math that affirmative action suppresses Asian Americans and Jewish Americans,” Dhillon said. “So that is going to turn out those Asian voters who live in California because their dream is to send their kids to UC Berkeley or UCLA or one of those top schools.”
The amendment can be placed on a statewide ballot only with two-thirds votes in both houses of the Legislature. If Democrats lose their supermajorities in just one of the chambers this year, the amendment is unlikely to succeed. Republicans were unanimous in their opposition when SCA5 passed the Senate.