A GROUP OF Asian-American parents, civil rights groups and a parent teacher organization are attempting to block changes to the admissions process for New York City’s competitive entrance exam schools that would make the schools more racially diverse.
The group filed a federal lawsuit in Manhattan on Thursday against New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, arguing that the plan to reserve 20 percent of seats for low-income students who barely miss the cut-off score for admission discriminates against Asian-American children.
“We all have the American dream of equal opportunity,” Yi Fang Chen, who moved to the U.S. from China with her parents in 1996, said in a statement. “I was able to achieve what my parents came to this country for. But by using race preference to determine student enrollment at these excellent schools, it’s like the mayor is taking someone else’s dream away.”
At issue is access to the city’s vaunted eight specialized schools, which include nationally-recognized schools like Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School. Each year, the eight schools admit about 4,000 freshmen from a pool of nearly 30,000 eighth-graders who take the Specialized High School Admission Test. As it stands, students are admitted purely based on test scores.
A Community Divided
The schools are competitive, especially among low-income families, because they’re considered one of the only ways to access an elite education that virtually guarantees a pathway to college outside of enrolling in a private school.
But the schools are hyper-segregated: Asian-Americans make up 16 percent of the city’s public school population, but account for nearly 75 percent of students enrolled in Stuyvesant, for example, 66 percent of students at Bronx Science and 60 percent of students at Brooklyn Tech. Alternately, black and Latino students account for less than 11 percent of students in the specialized high schools despite accounting for more than 70 percent of students in New York City public schools on the whole.
In an effort to increase the diversity at the specialized high schools, the city operates what’s known as the Discovery Program, where low-income students who score high on the admission test but below the required cut-off can complete a summer program administered by the specialized high schools in order to gain admission.
Spots were offered based on availability and fewer than 6 percent of seats were awarded that way for the 2018-2019 school year, and it’s made virtually no impact on the racial makeup of the student body despite growing the program in recent years.
De Blasio has long called for the specialized schools to better reflect the city’s student population, and in one of his first major bids to do that, announced a plan to overhaul the Discovery program.
The new plan requires 20 percent of each specialized high schools’ incoming class would come from the Discovery program, an expansion that would come over the course of two years. The program would also be limited to certain middle schools where 60 percent or more of its students are poor.
When Snow and School Segregation Collide
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say that many schools with large Asian-American student populations fall just below that 60 percent cutoff, and the new plan would render their students ineligible for the program, despite the fact that many of them are poor.
As it stands, 67 percent of students admitted through the Discovery program were Asian-Americans.
The plaintiffs argue that the new plan will effectively lock out Asian-Americans and restrict equal access to the specialized high schools of tens of thousands of poor Asian-American children who don’t live in the high-poverty school districts. Moreover, they consider the move the first step in a slow walk toward eliminating the exam altogether.
“Governments have no business fiddling with admissions requirements to public schools in order to obtain their desired racial balance,” said Chris Keiser, attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Asian-American parents, the Asian American Coalition for Education, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, and a parent teacher organization of a high-performing public middle school in a low-income section of Brooklyn where almost two-thirds of students are Asian-American.
The Asian American Coalition for Education is also a plaintiff in the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University, in which it’s also arguing the school’s race-conscious admissions policy discriminates against Asian-Americans.