January 8, 1999

California Governor Proposes A 4 Percent Solution

By Michelle Dearmond

SACRAMENTO - A year after the end of affirmative action at the University of California, Gov. Gray Davis said he would ``ensure diversity and fair play'' by guaranteeing admission to the top 4 percent of students at each high school in the state.

The Democrat announced the proposal at his inauguration Monday, in part as a way of minimizing the effects of Proposition 209, the voter-approved measure that dismantled racial and ethnic preferences that was sponsored by his predecessor, Republican Pete Wilson.

Currently, UC, with 129,000 students at eight undergraduate campuses, admits the top 12.5 percent of all high school graduates statewide, an applicant pool that tends to be filled with students from affluent, top-performing schools.

The proposal to take 4 percent from every school could benefit nearly as many whites at rural schools as well as blacks and Hispanics at inner-city schools that send few students to UC, so it is expected to have only a minimal impact on the ethnic makeup of the total enrollment.

The new proposal also would change the way graduates are ranked by putting less emphasis on standardized verbal and math exams and more weight on SAT-II tests, which score knowledge in three subjects of the students' choice and tend to be better predictors of performance in college. Taking auto repair to inflate a GPA won't help, however: Students still must complete college-preparatory courses to qualify.

``We believe that it will result in a student body that is more representative of the state's diverse population without sacrificing academic excellence,'' said Charles McFadden, spokesman for the UC system.

Wilson and his supporters on the Board of Regents ended affirmative action at UC months before Proposition 209 went into effect in 1996 at California State University and other branches of state government. Since affirmative action ended at UC, undergraduate enrollment of blacks, Hispanics and American Indians at UC has dropped 9.5 percent.

``We will seek to ensure diversity and fair play by guaranteeing to those students who truly excel by graduating in the top 4 percent of their high school - whether it's in West Los Angeles or East Palo Alto,'' Davis said. ``Those kids who excel will automatically be admitted to the University of California.''

The proposal, first made by the university to the regents last February, is subject to approval by California's 26-member Board of Regents, though the first Democratic governor in 16 years will have considerable influence.

Not only does Davis preside over the board, but three fellow Democrats also sit on the board, and he can appoint 10 members during the next four years. A vote by the regents is scheduled for March.

Ward Connerly, a black regent who was appointed by Wilson and led the campaign to end affirmative action, said that he has yet to make up his mind about the 4 percent proposal but that he is considering supporting it because it might motivate low-income students.

``There is very little culture of achievement in low-income neighborhoods, especially a culture of academic achievement,'' he said. ``This could put a prize out there.''

At the same time, he said that unless the state also provided more financial aid, the proposal would probably be of more benefit to white rural students than inner-city blacks and Hispanics. And he said he fears a dumbing-down of UC.

``If you admit the top 4 percent at every high school, while that sounds good politically, the effect is that without a doubt it does amount to a relaxing of the statewide standards,'' Connerly said.

After a federal appeals court struck down affirmative action in admissions at the University of Texas law school, the UT system began accepting the top 10 percent of each high school last fall. Officials there said Tuesday that it's too soon to say whether this has lowered the quality of the student body.

At UC, there were 4,161 blacks, Hispanics and American Indian enrolled as undergraduates last fall.

McFadden acknowledged the proposal would probably increase minority enrollment by only 1 percent. And students wouldn't necessarily get the UC school of their choice. UCLA, Berkeley and Davis would probably remain the state's most elite public universities.

Still, Kevin Fisher, who teaches drama, German and French at an inner-city school in San Bernardino, said he thinks the guarantee might be just the thing to inspire his students.

Only a few of the mostly poor, black students at Pacific High School make it into the UC system, and teachers have to work hard just to keep youngsters from dropping out.

``It gives them a special chance. They're just not left out in the cold,'' Fisher said. ``They could see something, a light at the end of the tunnel.''

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