Oklahoma Would Suffer Under Ban of Programs That Expand Opportunity

On Tuesday, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to ban programs that expand opportunity and create a broader middle class. Five states have adopted similar bans on affirmative action in education, employment, and contracting to the severe detriment of their residents and their economic future.

Simply put, states that adopt these bans have fewer women and minority doctors, lawyers, college graduates, and successful businesses -- and they have a harder time competing in an increasingly diverse global marketplace. Oklahoma would be wise to avoid going down the same path.

The state referendum, known as State Question 759, would mean that state universities would be unable to accept qualified students who would also make their campuses more diverse, and that government would be unable to seek out diverse candidates for state jobs. The ban would also require the state to end any program that helps women- and minority-owned businesses gain entry into the marketplace.

The experience of other states demonstrates that the impact of this ban would be to hurt Oklahoma's middle class, the quality of its public higher education system, and, ultimately, its economy.

Since California passed a similar initiative in 1996, enrollment of underrepresented minorities to the state's flagship universities, law schools, and medical schools has dropped significantly, despite rapid population growth in those communities. Since Michigan passed its ban in 2006, the number of underrepresented minorities enrolled at the University of Michigan has dropped every single year. The city of Grand Rapids, Mich., and the California transportation department- two of the few entities that release such contracting data - both report that the value of contracts they award to women- and minority-owned businesses has been cut in half.

Affirmative action policies and programs have always been about expanding opportunities to qualified individuals, but the discourse around them has become fraught with misleading and misinformation that makes them extremely vulnerable to ballot initiatives.

Obviously, times have been tough across the state and country. But if Oklahoma's voters fall into this trap and amend their constitution to ban these programs, they will just dig themselves into a deeper hole.

As Oklahoma's population grows more diverse, the need to educate and provide more opportunities to every resident will only become more critical to the state's future. Without that, the state's rapidly growing Latino population, as well as its established American Indian and African-American communities, will be left behind - along with the potential economic growth that would benefit everyone, including Whites.

Equal opportunity is not a zero-sum game. Policies and programs that expand opportunity help create shared prosperity, where everyone has a chance to succeed in education, work, and business. And when that happens, everyone wins.