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Affirmative Reaction 

Even with Proposition 209, there are proven ways to help minority kids get to college

Wednesday, Nov 12 1997
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Most people know that this year's drop in minority enrollment at the UC Berkeley law school is what brought Jesse Jackson to California last August, spouting ugly charges of "ethnic cleansing" in the universities. But the most interesting facet of the Proposition 209 debate may be the number of thoughtful people in both camps who will tell you that affirmative action isn't strictly about skin color.

"I think in the forefront of the debate is the idea that, oh it's race," says Ronald Takaki, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley who supports affirmative action, believes that racism in America is structural, and has debated against people like Charles (The Bell Curve) Murray. "I'm saying that underneath race, a more powerful factor is class."

Robert Pickus, a Prop. 209 supporter who runs the World Without War Council from a shaky old tree-shaded house in Berkeley -- the same house where Tom Wood and Glynn Custred drafted Prop. 209 -- agrees. "After 30 years [of affirmative action], the entrance of blacks into the middle class has gone up, but the ghetto situation has gotten worse," he says. The real debate over affirmative action, he says, has been clouded with "passion tied to good principle," expressed by people who earn a living at race-card games.

"It has nothing to do with race," he says. "It's got to do with class."
Proposition 209 bars the California government from using race and gender preferences in contracting, hiring, and public-school admissions. Beneath all the racial rhetoric, the intellectual debate over slashing preferences has always boiled down to whether they attend to the country's deepest equity problems. Jesse Jackson's answer is yes, because in terms of equal opportunity, America "isn't there yet." But UC Regent Ward Connerly's answer -- and the answer that Proposition 209 requires California to face -- is no:

"Our policies in the past have been giving preferences to middle- and upper-income black and Latino kids who are the sons and daughters of professional people," Connerly claims, "using as a rationale the notion -- albeit false -- that these policies are benefiting low-income people. And so we want to focus on genuine policies that benefit the poor, and get them in a position where they too can go to college."

All right, Ward. How?

Since 1980, when busing became an issue in San Diego County, Mary Catherine Swanson has been running a college preparation program called AVID for so-called disadvantaged students. The acronym stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, and the program's goal is to make C-level students eligible to attend the University of California by tutoring them in their weakest subjects and training them in standardized test-taking.

In 17 years, AVID has moved from Clairemont High across San Diego County, north through most of California, into six other states and about nine foreign countries where American soldiers and diplomats have kids in government schools. On the strength of a small (600-student) study by an outside group that shows impressive numbers -- 92.8 percent of the students enroll in college and 89 percent are still there after two years -- AVID was first offered state money by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. (Wilson vetoed it as a potential budget item for four consecutive years before that, declaring it too expensive.) Most of AVID's money still comes from the counties and school districts that offer the program.

A typical AVID class is a small group tutorial dedicated to improving each student's weakest subject. It counts as a high school elective. The students take notes in all their classes and examine their notes during the tutorial by asking and answering questions. Homework, in an AVID class, is to digest what's happening in every other class. The students not only put what they learn into writing but also take, for free, standardized-test preparation courses.

Richard Maggi is assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at Galileo High School in San Francisco, which is offering AVID for the first time this year. Of all college preparation courses in the state, Maggi says, AVID is the only one that helps average students -- as opposed to gifted or failing students -- "see themselves as college-bound."

"We cite it in our report as an outstanding model," says Dennis Galligani, chief staff to the UC Regents' Outreach Task Force, which has just finished a massive report on how the UC system can help underprivileged kids get into its schools without using the preferences banned by Prop. 209. The report recommends that the state should give $18 million to AVID and similar programs.

Ever heard of it? Probably not. College prep programs have been flying far, far under the radar of the Prop. 209 debate, but they represent the kind of affirmative action California has left, now that preferences are illegal. Two of the state's largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are virtually AVID-free. (Both districts have other, scattered college prep programs.)

Galileo High School and Luther Burbank Middle School (also in San Francisco) are launching AVID for the first time this year, mainly as a result of Gov. Wilson's decision to fund it. The state money helped AVID set up a regional office in Contra Costa County. The program currently serves 20,000 kids statewide and costs about $2.5 million.

"If you take everything into account," says Swanson, AVID's founder, "including the tutors the schools pay for, everything, the staff development the teachers get, it's less than a dollar a student a day."

What's hard to understand is that there's been almost no push from the left for this kind of program. A Jesse Jackson march for AVID would be unimaginable. In an interview after his August demonstration, Jackson insisted that the way to make California a more inclusive state in the wake of Prop. 209 is simply to fight the law, to stage marches and register voters. And the push from the right has been just as perfunctory -- Wilson wasn't burning to fund AVID in the early '90s.

The aftermath of Prop. 209 reveals only a smattering of semiprivate programs that attend to the problems of culture and class. But education, more than hiring and contracting, can be geared to let people earn their opportunities. So why hasn't it been? Why, in the 30-odd years since the term "affirmative action" was coined, have state institutions mustered not much more than a skin-deep policy that's never been comfortably constitutional?

Almost two years ago, UC Berkeley's former chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien, set up a program called Berkeley Pledge as a response to the Board of Regents' ban of preferences systemwide. "Berkeley Pledge is sort of an umbrella program to coordinate all of the outreach programs into a systematic outreach in K-12 schools," says Jesus Mena, UC Berkeley's director of media relations.

The program not only yokes Berkeley's scattered outreach efforts into an organized minority recruiting system; it also offers scholarships and sets up mentoring programs in local high schools to give kids professional role models -- meaning engineers, lawyers, musicians, sometimes Nobel laureate scientists -- who can offer career advice. It tries to do everything that has arguably needed doing since before the 1960s, but ex-Chancellor Tien appropriated the money in late 1995, after the regents decided to junk preferences.

"The way we see the issue," says Jesus Mena, "is that affirmative action, regardless of its problems -- I mean I'm a minority; I can tell you anecdotally I know of places where affirmative action was misused -- [but] regardless of its flaws, Berkeley in particular had used it very successfully, in terms of diversifying and yet preserving academic excellence."

"But now it's gone, so now our challenge is to find creative ways to work with other ways which preserve diversity."

UC's Berkeley campus could work as a microcosm for the rest of California. In the same way its scattered root-level programs have been orchestrated by Berkeley Pledge, the rest of the state's college prep and outreach programs could be coordinated and multiplied to form a net of de facto affirmative action. The regents' own Outreach Task Force was formed to study how the UC system as a whole can do that. And one idea comes straight from Berkeley Pledge: Each UC campus would use its professors to bolster local schools. Berkeley science professors might, for example, help im-prove the Bay Area's weaker high school science programs.

Robert Pickus, the World Without War Council president who supports Prop. 209, believes that if these programs had been used for the past 30 years instead of preferences, "we would not have come as far, in terms of changes in the society; but we would have made steady progress without cutting the ground out from the whole idea of 'you as a human being,' is what I'm looking at. ... Everybody acknowledges that race is a myth. And everybody treats it as though it's real."

Prop. 209 may be nothing but an excuse for lawsuits. The clash between the proposition and federal affirmative action mandates has set the state floating in shallow water, waiting for a potential tsunami of discrimination suits from people of every color. The Supreme Court recently allowed an appellate decision upholding Prop. 209's constitutionality to stand. Unless the proposition is overturned in a subsequent case, or until Congress passes, and the president signs, a law similar to 209, minorities in California will have a federally mandated right to be hired by the government partly because of their race or gender, and white men will have a state-mandated right not to be passed up because of theirs.

"I would have called it the Attorneys' Full Employment Act," quips Jim Lewis, a public relations man at the California Building Trades Council.

This is why Ward Connerly founded his American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento late last year. He wants to solve the legal impasse by pushing a federal version of Prop. 209 on Capitol Hill. Connerly supports programs like AVID but admits that he has no time for them.

"If I had to find some national movement that would be the moral equivalent to getting a man on the moon," he says, giving the idea some high-sounding lip service, "it would be convincing every black and Latino kid that they have to go to college."

But minorities won't have anything approaching universal access to higher education until Connerly and Jesse Jackson -- until both sides of the Prop. 209 debate -- spend more time on programs that help the underprivileged get to college, and less on legal infighting and flaming racial rhetoric.

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