Chilling or Warming Effects of Affirmative Action Bans?

As we await the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Fisher v. University of Texas case, an intense and polarized debate has arisen about whether bans on affirmative action such as California’s Proposition 209 have had a chilling or a warming effect on minority student enrollment. In 1996, Proposition 209 in California, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, amended the state constitution through a ballot proposition and prohibited governmental agencies and public institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in employment, contracting or admissions.

Papers offered at the Brookings Institution in September 2012 presented one side of the debate. A presentation by Kate Antonovics, an economist at the University of California at San Diego and Richard Sander, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, asserted that Prop 209 had a “warming” effect on the enrollment of underrepresented minority students. Their analysis is based upon yield rates and they conclude that affirmative action increased the likelihood of minority students accepting admissions offers. (Yield rates refer to the percentage of students who choose to enroll in a university or college after having been offered admission).

These researchers also offered support for a controversial theory called “mismatch.” Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr., a former New York Times Supreme Court reporter, have been the primary proponents for this theory that argues that racial preferences for blacks offered by certain tiers of schools below the elite tier result in “mismatch” or the unintended side effect of driving students with weaker academic preparation than their classmates to drop out of school and abandon their career aspirations.

Yet a recent empirical study by Peter Arcidiacono and his colleagues at Duke University reaches a different conclusion regarding the effect of Proposition 209. These researchers found that college enrollment rates of African Americans and Hispanics in California’s 4-year public colleges actually declined after the Proposition’s implementation. The data set used to derive these results was not based upon yield rates, but rather upon enrollment data from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) coupled with data provided by the University of California Office of the President on parental income and education, high school GPAs and SAT scores that allowed the researchers to control for these variables.

Two-thirds of the enrollment decrease reported by Arcidiacono and others came from the California State University System (CSU). Yet, surprisingly, the authors describe the CSU system as consisting “primarily of non-selective institutions.” Would it not be significant that institutions that have traditionally served a greater proportion of minority populations have had a decline in minority enrollment post-Prop 209? And while the CSU may be less selective than the UC, the excellence of the CSU institutions has long been recognized by college rankings. For example, U.S. News and World Report’s selected California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo as the best public master’s university in the West for 17 years in a row. In reporting the findings on the decline in minority enrollment, Arcidiacano and his co-researchers hypothesize that CSU’s simultaneous implementation of Executive Order 665 requiring all incoming freshmen to take the English Placement and Entry Level Mathematics tests “may have deterred enrollments in the CSU system, especially among minorities” (p. 14).

Different evidence is offered for the “chilling” effect of bans on affirmative action by William C. Kidder at the University of California at Riverside. In “Misshaping the River: Proposition 209 and Lessons from the Fisher Case”, Kidder presents survey data from 9750 Latino and African American students at eight UC campuses. This data indicates that the campus racial climate has become significantly more inhospitable for these students than at UT Austin and two other peer universities. The perception of a “chilly climate” has resulted from the affirmative action ban and low diversity that have led students to believe that they are less respected by their peers. In a recent paper titled, “The Salience of Racial Isolation” Kidder also presents directly conflicting evidence on yield rates, indicating that the percentage of African Americans accepting admissions offers has declined, with some instances of zero yield rates to top UC universities.

The conflicting analyses presented by scholars on both sides of the affirmative action debate call for continuing review. The results of the survey of campus climate at the University of California indicating perceptions of a “chilly” environment for minority students seem especially significant, as universities seek to build inclusive and welcoming campuses in the face of legal challenges.

The Segregation of Seattle’s John Stanford “International” School

About 15 years ago, John Stanford became head of Seattle Public Schools. He had a vision. Recognizing the demands of a global economy and an increasingly diverse student body, he proposed an international language school. Key components included: proficiency in English and at least one other language, global perspectives infused into all areas of study (rather than being “add-ons”), and partnerships with parents, community leaders, and international sister schools. His vision led to Seattle creating a network of international schools, featuring immersion programs and curriculum that prepare students to be globally competent in the 21st century. The first, John Stanford International School (elementary), opened in 2000 with two immersion tracks, Japanese-English and Spanish-English.


International public schools, now seen across the nation, are a huge departure from trends of the recent past which discouraged multilingual learning based on the assumption that it would be confusing for young children. Implicit in this assumption was an insidious message about assimilation to mainstream culture through fluency in English and abandonment of native tongues. Immigrant parents were led to believe their children would suffer, be slow, or “dumber” than their monolingual counterparts. Many Americans today are all too familiar with our history of educational pressure to conform, and can easily recount personal and painful stories about loss of heritage language and access to culture.

Research on dual language development has grown substantially since the 1970s. We now know there are actually many cognitive benefits for young children simultaneously exposed to more than one language. These children have greater brain activity and denser tissue in areas related to memory, attention, and language. They have performed better on measures of analytical ability, concept formation, cognitive flexibility, and metalinguistic skills. Evidence also suggests that children who continue to learn academic concepts in their native language while gradually learning English outperform academically and socially children who are immersed in English-only programs.

So, did John Stanford lay the foundation for global elementary education in Seattle? Not quite. In her long awaited second book Can We Talk About Race? Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., alarmingly spotlights the slow resegregation of our nation’s schools over the last decade. She shows how a series of recent legislations reverting school assignments to neighborhood have led to the undoing of much achieved by Brown v. Board of Education. Given that much of the U.S. is still severely divided across racial lines when it comes to housing, schools have naturally fallen back into segregated patterns.

Seattle is no exception. After a decade of other unsuccessful efforts to desegregate its schools, Seattle School District instituted mandatory busing in 1977. reaching its racial-enrollment goals 3 yrs later. However the District ended busing in 1989 and the racial balance at Seattle schools began to unravel. In 2007 Seattle parents played a pivotal role in legislative resegregation in the Supreme Court case Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1. The Court prohibited assigning students to public schools solely for the purpose of achieving racial integration and declined to recognize racial balancing as a compelling state interest. For years, Seattle parents had been given wide latitude to pick and choose schools for their children. In June 2009 however, Seattle Public Schools adopted a new student assignment plan reverting to a community-based approach, sending students to schools closest to home. The plan was phased in from 2010-2011.

2010 Census results indicated that more than a third of Seattle residents were persons of color. This population grew 26% from 1990-2000, and 32% from 2000-2010. The largest non-White racial group in Seattle is Asian and Pacific Islander living predominantly in the South end (International District, Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill) and outside the city in parts of Bellevue, Redmond, Kent, Bothell, Auburn, SeaTac and Maple Valley. Despite these statistics, John Stanford’s visionary first International School and Japanese immersion program, is located in North Seattle, Wallingford. A predominantly White neighborhood. Originally parents from all over the city could apply to John Stanford. Children with Japanese heritage were given priority.

But since the district reverted to neighborhood assignment, only students within the assignment zone may attend. According to the School District’s own annual reports (before 2010) and school reports (2010-), while John Stanford’s Asian student body remained constant at about 23% from 2004-2010, its White student body grew from 41% in 2004 to 56% in 2009/10. When the neighborhood school assignment was phased in from 2010-2011, John Stanford’s White student body jumped up to 61% while it’s Asian student body dropped to 13% (though 10% newly identified as multiracial and some may have been part Asian). This racial demographic shift certainly doesn’t reflect what is happening in the city at large. When I called the school to confirm, an impatient woman curtly told me that the drop in Asian attendees was not true and that the school had just added a kindergarten class. When I told her my own son has Japanese heritage and I was interested to apply, she told me I couldn’t because we didn’t live in the zone.

Is John Stanford International School teaching students to be globally competent in the 21st century? Or is it teaching them racial exclusion and preferences of old?

Sharon Chang’s great blog is here.