Outlook Uncertain For California’s Prop. 54

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 24, 2003 5 min read
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The future of a California ballot initiative that seeks to bar public agencies from collecting and using individual data on race and ethnicity is less certain than ever.

Ziba Kashef wears a sticker over her mouth to protest California's Proposition 54.

Ziba Kashef wears a sticker over her mouth to protest Proposition 54, which was slated to be part of the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall ballot.
—Photograph by Jakub Mosur/AP

Not only are California voters evenly divided on Proposition 54, according to polls, but it’s unclear when they will get to vote on the controversial measure.

Proposition 54 was scheduled to be part of an Oct. 7 recall election to decide the political fate of Gov. Gray Davis, but a federal appeals-court panel handed down a ruling Sept. 15 that would delay the election. Further appeals in the case were pending late last week.

Whatever the outcome of the racial-data initiative, its leading champion, Ward Connerly, has once gain touched off a heated debate about race and ethnicity by proposing it. Mr. Connerly, a member of the University of California board of regents, spearheaded a campaign to end race-based admissions and hiring in state agencies and institutions that won voters’ approval as Proposition 209 in 1996.

Mr. Connerly’s newest proposal aims to prohibit, with some exceptions, the collection of information about people’s race and ethnicity and its use by state and local governments in California.

Currently, agencies such as the California Department of Education collect and analyze such data, though they don’t target money to specific programs on the basis of the data. But schools use racial and ethnic information to make sure that various groups of students have equal access to such opportunities as taking college-preparatory classes, educators note.

If Proposition 54 passes, public schools could no longer collect student or employee data by race, ethnicity, or national origin—nor analyze it—unless it were for satisfying requirements to receive federal funds, such as money through the No Child Left Behind Act. The initiative also contains an exemption for collecting such data for medical purposes and federal desegregation orders.

“For people who are interested in equal opportunity, it would be harder to document the extent of unequal opportunity,” should the initiative pass, said Russell W. Rumberger, the director of the Linguistic Minority Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an opponent of Proposition 54.

But Diane Schachterle, the campaign coordinator for Proposition 54, countered: “They’ve been keeping these statistics for the last 30 to 40 years on the achievement gap, and the more statistics they keep, the wider the gap becomes, which would indicate to those of us outside the education industry that there is a different solution than gathering statistics.”

What Polls Show

Proposition 54, which was slowly moving out from under the shadow of the recall election, was again bumped from the headlines by last week’s court-ordered delay. The panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit deemed that for the election to be fair, the use of punch cards for voting in six counties needed to be replaced with more modern methods.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley appealed the decision to the full circuit court on Sept. 17, arguing that the recall election should occur next month as scheduled, in part because voting was already under way. Absentee ballots have already been mailed, and some voters have already cast their votes. If the three-judge panel’s decision isn’t overturned, the recall election could occur March 2, the day of the state’s Democratic presidential primary.

Right now, poll results suggest that activists on both sides of the Proposition 54 debate have been equally successful in winning voters. According to a survey of 505 likely voters released Sept. 11 by the Field Research Co., of San Francisco, 40 percent of voters were likely to vote for the ballot initiative and 40 percent against it; 20 percent were undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

The measure has attracted the opposition of a host of education and advocacy organizations, including the California Department of Education, the California PTA, the California Teachers Association, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Representatives of some of those organizations argued last week that Proposition 54 would seriously hamper the efforts of researchers, schools, and state agencies to identify and address achievement gaps between various racial or ethnic subgroups.

“I do find it ironic that while No Child Left Behind, proposed by a Republican administration, is centered on closing the achievement gap, we [in California] would go in the exact opposite direction,” said Rick Miller, the director of communications for the state department of education.

With passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the federal government for the first time is requiring schools to show annual progress in the academic achievement of students who are members of various racial or ethnic subgroups—or be hit with penalties.

Proponents Make Case

That kind of tracking by race and ethnicity is exactly what Mr. Connerly, who is of mixed racial ancestry, and his supporters are trying to get rid of.

For one thing, Ms. Schachterle argued, many of the categories used by government agencies to identify people by race or ethnicity are meaningless. “Many people don’t fit in those boxes,” she said. “The categories are arcane and inaccurate. They stereotype whole segments of society.”

Asked if educators would be hindered from closing achievement gaps if they couldn’t track them, Ms. Schachterle said: “We think they should be addressing the students and the test scores and not focusing on race.”

Though no major education organization in the state has endorsed Proposition 54, some educators or school officials have.

Jim Kelly, the president of the school board of the 24,600-student Grossmont Union High School District, supports the initiative. A Republican, he says that Democrats misuse information about people’s race and ethnicity to “pander” to specific communities of people and “buy votes.”

But, opponents of Proposition 54 argue that unequal opportunity is alive in the country. “Minorities are more likely to have low- credentialed teachers and be in crowded schools,” said Mr. Rumberger of UC- Santa Barbara.

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