California Law Curbs Science Outreach Programs

Proposition 209, California's new anti-affirmative action law, appears to mean bad news for efforts to recruit minority students into science. At least one state-sponsored outreach program is scrapping criteria based on race in favor of others, such as low socioeconomic status, that may not include as many minority-group candidates.

Voters approved Prop 209 last fall (Science, 15 November 1996, p. 1073), but it went into effect only today after the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to delay its implementation. Civil rights groups now plan an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, state institutions--including the University of California (UC)--must discontinue any preferences given to women or minorities in contracts, employment, or education. UC admissions aren't affected, because gender and race preferences were ended last year by the UC regents (Science, 1 August, p. 633).

Outreach programs aimed at minority precollege students may be hurt, however. Mike Aldaco, director of the UC-administered Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement Program, which enrolls middle- and high-school minority students in special science programs, says MESA this fall will substitute guidelines such as educational and economic disadvantage for race and ethnicity. "Hopefully, we won't lose too many minorities as a result," he says.

It's possible that programs like MESA could survive a legal challenge even if they stuck with race-based criteria, says attorney Joseph Jaramillo of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Jaramillo notes that an appeals court ruling earlier this year interpreted Prop 209 as not banning outreach programs.