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PERSPECTIVES ON PROP. 209 / JOHN BALZAR

Selling Equality's Higher Costs

September 10, 1996|JOHN BALZAR

Supporters of Proposition 209 say this about repealing public-sector affirmative action programs for women and minorities: Taxpayers would save millions of dollars. Some supporters also say this: Californians could be morally obligated for billions in new spending.

The difference depends on which direction California travels if Proposition 209 passes Nov. 5.

One road is simply expressed: Eliminate government programs, save money.

But billions in new spending?

That is a more ambitious path. Some of those in the vanguard of Proposition 209 argue that outlawing established equal-opportunity programs increases society's obligation to upgrade schools, health care and other services so California's downtrodden may become better prepared to compete head-on.

Dreamy?

Perhaps. But champions of Proposition 209, including University of California Regent Ward Connerly and Gov. Pete Wilson, insist on voicing such dreams, intensifying edgy emotions in this gathering political storm.

Connerly and his inner circle argue that repeal of affirmative action for state and local government employment, contracting and education would not be the end of it. They say their goal remains true fairness in society, and this is not achieved by granting breaks to some groups but by improving the means so that everyone is equally prepared to seize opportunity.

"It will cost a lot . . . to do this right," said Connerly, who is chairman and chief spokesman for the 209 campaign.

Many on the opposing side find this a dubious argument, perhaps dubious to the point of being disingenuous. After all, the backers of Proposition 209 are not presenting voters any replacement alternatives, complete with price tag, in the November election.

"Proposition 209 is simply a retreat, nothing more," said Thomas Saenz, Los Angeles regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The drafters included nothing, not even in the vaguest, unenforceable, hortatory language about rebuilding something on the demolished system of equal opportunity.

"They have come up with this after the fact, when they realized their message wasn't going to fly on its own," he said.

On the other hand, it is a notable development itself when California conservative leaders suggest that they, and taxpayers at large, might be obliged to undertake deeper reforms in society for the benefit of the disadvantaged and equal opportunity. That idea has been voiced traditionally by liberals.

Recently, Connerly and two other 209 leaders met with editors and reporters at The Times. They conceded that their amendment to the state Constitution would have immediate consequences such as reducing minority admissions to the University of California. But they insisted that society would be compelled to face up to unmet needs of the disadvantaged.

"The number of underrepresented minorities is going to go down," Connerly said about UC admissions. "If you give someone a preference, and then you take that preference away, the numbers are going to go down."

Gail Heriot, co-chairwoman of the campaign and law professor at the University of San Diego, added, "Preferences have had the very bad effect . . . of masking a massive problem."

She reasoned that affirmative action programs such as automatic university admission preferences for minorities have become an ineffective shortcut to try to equalize opportunities. The better alternative, she said, would be to reform schools so that all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, finish high school with the academic means to compete equally.

But wouldn't that require a remaking of schools unprecedented in contemporary California history? At this point, Connerly agreed: "It will cost a lot . . . to do this right."

How much, these leaders were asked?

The third member of the group, state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), noted that Gov. Wilson this year sought $971 million to reduce public school class size by about one-third in first through third grades, plus another $152 million for additional reading materials for grades one and two.

Those numbers provide an inkling of what it could cost for the much larger task of upgrading all schools and equalizing vast differences in educational quality. Kopp was not ready to put forth an estimate of such costs but did not object when a questioner suggested that it would be in the billions.

Kopp said that once public-sector affirmative action preferences had been outlawed, voters would be more sympathetic to increased school spending. "Californians would vote for it," he said. And furthermore, Kopp said, "Sure," he would be happy to personally sponsor such a ballot proposition.

Earlier this year, Wilson offered his own view on the topic. He is a champion of Proposition 209 and signed the ballot argument for it, but said the state could not stop at that.

In lieu of affirmative action, Wilson said in July, California must prepare children "so they can compete and win on the basis of individual merit."

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