Activists Stage March for Equal Education Opportunities

THOUSANDS of education activists will march on the state capitol today demanding improved education for minority communities. Spring Action 89, a coalition of education groups, is staging a march to seek passage of the Educational Rights Act, a series of bills to improve education for kindergarten through high school and colleges. The goal is to raise the number of minorities graduating from the state's universities.

Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians now make up the majority of students in California public schools, a situation facing many United States cities. California's educational reforms will be closely watched nationwide.

``If we win in Sacramento,'' says Mabel Teng, Spring Action 89 rally speaker and community college instructor, ``we win an important victory not only for students, but for minority people throughout the country.''

In the 1960s other states used California's Master Plan for Higher Education as a model for equal opportunity. The plan promised a college education to all who asked. The top 12.5 percent graduating high school seniors could enter the University of California (UC) and the top 33 percent could attend the California State University (CSU).

Others might enroll at community colleges for two years and then transfer to a four-year school. In 1973 the Legislature declared that the state's colleges should admit the same percentage of ethnic minorities that graduate from the state's high schools.

The original program performed well overall, says Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, chairman of a bipartisan legislative committee preparing a new master plan. But he calls the '73 parity provisions an ``abject failure.''

According to the committee's final report, Hispanics and blacks constituted 30 percent of public high school graduates in 1986. But only 4.5 percent of blacks and 5 percent of Hispanics were eligible to enter UC, according to the report. Some 16 percent of white graduates qualified.

Steven Phillips, northern California chairman of the African Black Statewide Student Association, blames the problem on lack of resources for kindergarten through high schools, as well as poor admittance and retention policies by the universities. The state provides less money for teachers and equipment to inner-city schools, Mr. Phillips says.

As a result, he says, minority students receive an inferior education. Those few who enter a four-year school must often leave because of financial pressures. Students become alienated, he says, by the low number of minority faculty, administrators, and advisers. He also criticizes administrators for ``not punishing increasing incidents of racial harassment.''

State education officials dispute such charges. Campus administrators deal promptly with any cases of alleged racial harassment, says Peter Mehas, Gov. George Deukmejian's assistant for education. While Mr. Mehas admits that the CSU and UC could improve hiring of minority faculty and retain more minority students, he says the universities ``have been making strides. They're both serious about improving admittance and retention.''

Mehas points out that the governor has consistently increased money available for state scholarships and will continue to do so in the future. He points to the ability of minority students to transfer from community colleges to four-year schools as a sign that the educational system is working. Such students, he says, are more likely to graduate with a BA than those entering directly from high school.

``We haven't heard any complaints about transfers,'' Mehas says. ``It's successful.''

But critics disagree.

``The state has a miserable history of minority transfers to UC and CSU,'' says Andrew Wong, statewide organizer for Spring Action 89. Mr. Wong says the state should increase funding for transfer programs and increase financial aid. In addition, Spring Action 89 wants to make racial harassment a violation of student conduct codes.

Students also back a bill by Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes to create a ``student of color advisory board'' to monitor progress with admissions and retention.

``What we do in Sacramento,'' Wong says, ``will affect students into the next century. We're also fighting for our communities. An educated people are more likely to register, vote, and gain political power.''

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