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Arkansas Senate panel recommends ending state affirmative action


Arkansas Senate panel recommends ending state affirmative action

Jan 31, 2023 | 4:35 pm ET
By Hunter Field
Arkansas Senate panel recommends ending state affirmative action
Arkansas Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) shakes hands with Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) while Senate State Agencies Committee Chair Blake Johnson (R-Corning) watches. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Senate)

A legislative committee Tuesday morning passed a bill to end state affirmative action, but most of the public was left in the dark on the proposal’s language because it wasn’t made publicly available until after the panel voted and adjourned.

Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) would do away with programs that encourage state agencies, public schools and colleges to hire people of color and women.

“We’re eliminating affirmative action,” Sullivan said. “And in reality, making affirmative action available to everyone, not just a select group.”

Nine other states have banned affirmative action, whether through legislation, court action or executive orders. The bans have largely focused on college admissions, and the U.S. Supreme Court is largely expected to rule against raced-based college admissions in a case that’s expected to have nationwide ramifications.

In 2020, Idaho outlawed affirmative action for state agencies, state contracting and public education.

Under Sullivan’s bill a city, county, institution of higher education, public school district or a political subdivision or governmental instrumentality of the state would be prohibited from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, an individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in matters of state employment, public education or state procurement.

The bill also strikes sections from the following portions of state law that deal with diversity, equity and inclusion:

• The Alcoholic Beverage Control shall no longer consider ownership diversity when issuing alcohol permits, under SB71.

• Public schools would no longer be required to make it a goal to hire and retain teachers and administrators of minority races and ethnicities to, at a minimum, reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the district’s students

• The state Department of Education would no longer be instructed to work with the colleges and universities to attract more teachers of color to the profession.

• Public colleges and universities would no longer be required to develop plans to recruit and retain minority students, faculty and staff.

• It would open the Critical Needs Minority Teacher Scholarship Program to all individuals instead of only minorities. The program was designed to attract qualified minority teachers to the Delta and parts of state with critical shortages of teachers by awarding scholarships to minorities who pledged to teach in those areas.

• It would do away with the program that required every state department, agency, board, commission, and institution of higher education and every constitutional officer to adopt and pursue a comprehensive equal employment hiring program designed to increase the percentage of minority employees to a level that approximates the percentage of minorities in the state’s population.

Negligently violating Sullivan’s bill would be a class A misdemeanor.

Bill confusion

On Jan. 18, Sullivan introduced the two-page proposal, which said: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, an individual or group on the basis of race, gender, color, ethnicity, or national origin in matters of state employment, public education, or state procurement.”

On Monday, he changed the bill with a nine-page amendment that strikes portions of state law related to affirmative action in state hiring and scholarships. But the amendment wasn’t available for review on the state Legislature’s website at the time of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs’ meeting.

The amendment was posted to the site about 15 minutes after the committee voted to adopt the amendment and recommend the new bill to the full Senate for passage.

Typically, legislative committees don’t vote on amended bills until they’ve been engrossed, or put into the final form that will be written into law. When committees do vote on bill yet to be engrossed, the amendments are usually minor.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) and Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) both raised the issue that the amended bill had not been available to the public. Sullivan initially said he would wait to run the amended bill another day, but after some discussion he decided to push for a committee vote because he believed minds were already made up on the legislation.

“The amendment merely offered additional implementation detail to the long-available bill,” Sullivan said after the meeting. “There’s nothing in the amendment that differs at all with the principles of the original bill and there’s nothing substantively new in the amendment. If you liked the original bill, you like the amendment, and vice versa.”

The bill passed on a split voice vote, with Tucker the only audible dissenter.

Sullivan told the committee that he felt the time was right to rid the state of affirmative action. Asked afterwards if he believed affirmative action had served a purpose until now, Sullivan said he agreed Chief U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’ opinion in the 2007 case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle.

“The way to stop discrimination is to stop discriminating,” Sullivan said. “One can’t end discrimination while at the same time promoting discrimination.  The intent of this bill is to stop discrimination.”

Vernice Nazare, representing the Arkansas Black Chamber of Commerce, noted that Jim Crow laws and shuttering of public schools to keep Black students out occurred only a generation ago. Nazare was the only member of the public to testify on the bill.

“Affirmative action and minority-owned business programs have not even lasted a whole generation,” she said. “I think this is a premature termination of the program.”

Tucker, the Little Rock Democrat, said he felt the bill proclaimed the end of racism and sexism, which he said was demonstrably false.

The first affirmative action bans were implemented in the 1990s, and a number of researchers have studied the impact of those programs’ abolishment.

A 2020 study published by the American Educational Research Association found that affirmative action bans led to persistent declines in the share of underrepresented minorities among students admitted to and enrolling in public flagship universities in those states.

The full Senate is expected to vote on SB71 on Thursday, unless there are delays due to inclement weather.