By T’wina Nobles
President and CEO of the Tacoma Urban League
Since the passage of initiative 200 in 1998, Washington state has been prohibited from using affirmative action to dedicate resources for outreach, recruitment, training, and retention of qualified women, people of color, or individuals with disabilities into public employment and contracting. This prohibition extends to our public university admissions processes also. As 42 other states in the country have already enacted affirmative action policies to ensure better outcomes for communities that haven’t had equal access to economic opportunities, Washington remains an outlier on the national stage. Voters will soon have a chance to rectify this by voting to Approve I-1000, which will appear under the heading of Referendum 88, on their November ballot this year.
Communities of color have been particularly impacted by disparities in economic outcomes in Washington state. In 1998, the number of public contracts that went to certified women and minority owned business owners was at about 10%. Today, that number is closer to 3%. This represents a $3.5 billion-dollar loss over two decades. This troubling trend is right at the heart of why some communities experience generational disadvantages as they strive to succeed – things like public contracting, employment, and education are the system-wide tools we have available to lift up communities that have been historically marginalized. When our public institutions are prohibited from being part of the solution, our whole region suffers, and too many working families fall through the cracks.
Leveling the playing field of economic opportunity for all Washingtonians is something we can and should strive for. This is particularly true for recruiting teachers who have similar backgrounds to the students they are charged with teaching. In the public-school system, teachers who are hired from the community where they teach help more students succeed over the course of their academic careers. A recent study conducted by John Hopkins and American University found that black students who have at least one black teacher during grade school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and aspire to secondary education. Washington state ranks close to last in the country when it comes to closing the opportunity gap between students from low-income families and their wealthier peers, and voting to Approve I-1000 would give the state more tools to address inequitable outcomes through more intentional teacher recruitment and hiring practices.
Providing fair access to higher educational opportunities for all communities is also an area where our state stands to improve. As Washington has become more diverse, our public universities have failed to keep up in student enrollment. Admission rates at public four-year universities for latino, black, native, and pacific islander students has fallen behind their representation in proportion to the state as a whole. The pipeline of economic opportunity for all Washingtonians depends on how accessible our primary and secondary education institutions are.
An approve vote on I-1000 will help qualified women, communities of color, and persons with disabilities to succeed in all these arenas- and ensure our state’s economy becomes fairer and more accessible for all residents.
Ultimately, voting to Approve Initiative I-1000 will help correct decades of inequity embedded in Washington state’s public employment, contracting, and university admissions practices. Creating a level playing field for all Washingtonians requires acting with intentionality and purpose. Understanding where certain communities have fallen behind, and dedicating resources to correct measured imbalances, is part and parcel of how we can work together to create a more just and equitable society. I hope voters will join me in voting to Approve I-1000, which will appear under the heading of “Referendum 88” on the November ballot this year.