Lawmakers consider repealing state ban on affirmative action

OLYMPIA, Wash. — On Friday, lawmakers will gather to consider repealing the state’s ban on affirmative action.

Affirmative action policies focus on ensuring equal employment and education opportunities for groups such as women and minorities, including those who were subject to illegal discrimination.

Using race and gender as factors in college admissions continues to be a highly debated issue, especially at the University of Washington, where a frequently asked questions webpage on the topic says:

Affirmative action does not reward race or sex in place of merit. It is intended to ensure that employers hire the most qualified people, including members of groups that previously have been subject to unlawful discrimination.

Initiative 200, which banned affirmative action, was approved by Washington voters in 1998.  It sought to outlaw the use of race and gender preferences by state and local government.

When it passed, the following language was added to Washington law:

The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

At 8 a.m. in Olympia on Friday, lawmakers in the senate committee on state government, tribal relations and elections will hear arguments over Senate Bill 6406, which would repeal the I-200 language "regarding discrimination and preferential treatment in the operation of public employment, education, or contracting."

SB 6406 is sponsored by a group of seven senators who say I-200 was supposed to prevent discrimination in college admission based on race, but has actually prevented the state's higher education system and agencies from making progress with regards to diversity.

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce agrees.

I-200 puts Washington universities at a disadvantage when trying to recruit top faculty and when trying to enroll the highest achieving, underrepresented minority students. The measure sends the message that the university, and Washington as a whole, does not welcome or value diversity.

Along with Washington, there are seven other states that currently ban affirmative action at public universities: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.