TALLAHASSEE, Fla.–An administrative law judge has upheld Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan to end affirmative action in state colleges for women and racial minorities and, in the same decision, he booted the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women out of the case.
NOW, a nationwide women’s political organization, had worked side by side with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading civil rights organization, in challenging the governor’s education plan. Together, they organized the largest demonstration in the state’s history against it. Both parties vow to appeal last week’s ruling before the 30-day deadline Aug. 12.
Florida NOW President Toni Van Pelt denounced the decision by administrative judge Charles Adams, calling it one more example of state officials trying to pit blacks and other minorities against women.
“It’s like women are invisible in this issue, like gender doesn’t matter at all,” Van Pelt said, noting that most of the state’s major daily newspapers referred to the issue as one of “race-based” scholarships and didn’t even mention NOW’s participation in the fight.
Bush ignored gender in his statement after the ruling:
“Today’s legal ruling confirms my view that Florida’s universities can legally admit talented high school graduates without using divisive and constitutionally suspect racial preferences,” he said.
At issue in the case is a portion of Bush’s anti-affirmative action plan called One Florida. Dubbed “Talented 20,” this element guarantees admission to one of the state’s 10 public universities to high school students in the top 20 percent of their class, who also have completed 19 required credits of academic curriculum. It replaces a plan known as “alternative admissions.” That policy considered other factors in addition to grades and test scores to allow for “important attributes or special talents,” such as artistic and other creative excellence, and to ensure diversity.
NOW and NAACP challenged the Talented 20 plan, claiming that it violated state laws that permitted state colleges to set their own admission criteria and did not ensure that the campuses would be diverse. Florida is about 14 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic, women making up more than half of the state population.
Bush and other officials hope to reduce the opposition to a manageable size.
In his ruling, the law judge also ignored the state Board of Regent’s statistics indicating that women, although accounting for 56.7 percent of enrollment, are significantly under-represented in the hard sciences, mathematics, engineering and computer sciences in both undergraduate and graduate degrees, Van Pelt said. Graduates in these fields are all but guaranteed higher pay throughout their careers, she added.
Adams, in his 157-page ruling, said NOW did not prove that the disparity was caused by discrimination in admissions practices.
The judge also declared NOW had no standing in the case because the organization didn’t prove “that a substantial number of its members are substantially affected.”
Adams conceded that “the subject matter of the rule is within Florida Now’s (sic) general scope of interest and activity and…the relief requested is of a type appropriate for Florida Now to receive on behalf of its members.” However, the judge added: “The proof concerning its membership constituencies was non-specific, and thereby insufficient, to show standing.”
Standing in legal cases means that the person or organization has a direct relationship to the matter at hand.
Florida NOW has 36 chapters, with about 6,000 members. The NAACP has 7,205 regular adult members and 2,587 regular youth members.
NOW representatives say they certainly believe the NAACP should get its due, but they also want people to understand that women have benefited from affirmative action as well and deserve to have their voices heard.
“When I go out and speak to black groups the first thing I tell them is that white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action and there’s this wave of ‘amens,’ and the next wave I feel come over them is a wave of resentment,” Van Pelt said. “That’s part of Bush’s divide and conquer strategy. When they say black and Hispanic, they mean black and Hispanic men. When they say women, they mean white women. When does a woman stop being a woman? Black women and Hispanic women aren’t even in the mix.”
Nancy Cook Lauer is a newspaper reporter based in Tallahassee.