How to promote diversity on college campuses and within the workforce, an issue that continues to smolder around the United States, is being rekindled - this time in Florida.
On Thursday, a state board will consider whether its public universities should follow the lead of California and Texas in adopting a college admissions program that they say focuses on accomplishment rather than skin color.
Supporters of affirmative-action programs view the proposal as a giant step backward in terms of the civil rights movement in Florida. They say that to counteract the effect of generations of racism and discrimination, race can and must be taken into account in remedial hiring and admissions policies.
To eliminate any focus on the race of applicants will significantly undercut the effectiveness of outreach programs, they say, and it may encourage others in Florida to abandon efforts to achieve diversity.
Those opposed to race-based preferences, like Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush, say the time has come to adopt colorblind approaches in minority college admissions programs. Last week, Governor Bush proposed a system in which the top 20 percent of graduating seniors from every high school in Florida would be guaranteed admission to one of the state's 10 public universities.
The proposal is designed to promote diversity in college enrollment by eliminating reliance on standardized test scores as a key criterion in winning admission. Black and Hispanic high school students have historically tested lower than whites on such tests, significantly undercutting their likelihood of being recruited for admission to a college.
By eliminating test scores as a criterion and automatically admitting the top 20 percent of students in each school, a larger number of minority candidates at largely black and Hispanic high schools will be offered the opportunity to attend a state university.
California adopted a similar program, offering guaranteed admission to the top 4 percent of state high school students, and Texas has a program offering admission to the top 10 percent.
Bush estimates that the Florida program could boost minority enrollment at state colleges by 400 to 1,200 students each year. Such a program recognizes students who worked hard and were successful in their own high schools but who may have done poorly on standardized tests.
That approach is applauded by Robert Shaeffer of the national organization FairTest, which opposes the use of standardized tests in college admissions.
"Going to a system that rewards a proven track record rather than a hypothetical potential [based on a test score] is a policy that we feel should be made uniform," he says. "This is an example of if you do well in high school you step up."
Others disagree. "It may address access for the top 20 percent, but is it really access to the top schools? Is it equitable access?" asks Georgina Verdugo of Americans for a Fair Chance, a pro-affirmative-action group in Washington.
Ms. Verdugo says Bush's proposal sets up a roadblock to minority students and seems more oriented toward satisfying Bush's political constituency than solving an acute educational problem.
Verdugo and other critics question whether low scoring minorities will be segregated into a few state schools, or whether the plan will achieve greater diversity throughout the university system including at the state's flagship colleges, the University of Florida and Florida State University.
In addition, they question whether the ban on relying on standardized test scores will extend to graduate and professional school-admissions programs.
The Bush plan is seen by many analysts largely as a reaction to a referendum campaign under way in Florida organized by Ward Connerly, a California businessman and affirmative action opponent. Mr. Connerly is seeking to place a question on the 2000 ballot that would amendment Florida's constitution to ban the use of any racial preferences in minority college admissions, hiring, and contracting.
A recent poll conducted by the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald showed that Florida voters favor such a proposal by a margin of 2 to 1. Nonetheless, Bush has criticized the referendum as divisive, although in principle he agrees with Connerly's colorblind approach.
But there is more than principle at stake in Florida in the 2000 election. Bush's brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is expected to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States, and the affirmative-action issue, if handled incorrectly, could provide a rallying point for Florida Democrats.
The Bush proposal, which also seeks to end minority contract set-asides and racial preferences in state hiring, is an attempt to reach out to both sides of the affirmative-action debate.
But the proposal did not persuade Connerly and his allies to fold their tents and end the referendum campaign. Connerly says he supports the Bush proposals, but that they do not go far enough because they would not apply to local governments and high schools. In addition, Connerly says, the Bush proposals would not be a permanent ban, as would be achieved by amending the state's constitution.
Kevin Ngyen, a spokesman for Connerly's American Civil Rights Coalition, says the Bush proposal has enhanced rather than diminished interest in the referendum.
"We've been receiving feedback from average Florida voters and the bulk of them want the initiative to make more permanent what the governor is striving to do," Mr. Ngyen says. "Part of it may be a concern that the government couldn't police itself without a constitutional amendment on the books."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society