For decades, admission to New York City’s eight elite “specialized high schools” has been based strictly on a high-stakes test administered to the city’s eighth-graders. The meritocratic premise is simple: regardless of who you are or how much your parents make, if you hit a certain score on the test, you’re guaranteed a place in one of these high schools, all among the best in the United States. But if Mayor Bill de Blasio gets his way, New York will scrap this venerable system for one that is as close to a race-based quota scheme as constitutionally possible. 

Progressives criticize the admissions test as an instrument of “segregation” because black and Latino kids are underrepresented among students accepted at schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. Indeed, in 2016, Stuyvesant had only 20 black students among a student body of more than 3,000. Brooklyn Tech, where de Blasio’s son went, is somewhat more racially diverse, with 14.8 percent black and Latino representation. But in a city where blacks and Latinos make up two out of every three public school students, black and Latino enrollment in the most elite secondary schools is undeniably thin—a direct result of student performance on the entrance test. 

Yesterday, the mayor, backed by his new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, announced that he plans to scrap the entrance test for the eight elite schools and replace it with a system offering admission to the kids in the top 7 percent of every junior school in the city. This change, according to the mayor, will make the schools “look like New York City” and answer the “demand for fairness” that supposedly rings across the five boroughs.

Chancellor Carranza chimed in, saying that as “a man of color, and a parent of children of color, I’m proud to work with our Mayor to foster true equity and excellence at our specialized high schools.” Carranza, who has no prior experience in New York City, has not been shy about talking about his ethnic heritage and the special insight it gives him into the city’s educational needs. Last month, he told a parent concerned about a plan to overhaul radically her local junior high school’s admissions procedures that she should sign up to take implicit-bias classes. Carranza regards school screening as elitism, or even disguised racism. “Why are we segregating kids based on test scores?” he asks. 

Talking about racial disparities across the city’s schools as “segregation”—as teachers’ union president Michael Mulgrew did last week—is an abuse of language. School segregation in the United States refers distinctly to Jim Crow-era practices of legal, enforced separation of blacks from whites. The loaded word “segregation” stirs anger and resentment and in the present context implies that disparities in admissions are a function of white racism. David E. Kirkland, who runs NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, made this claim in a press release circulated by the mayor’s office: “We’ve known for some time that the exclusion of Black and Brown students from the City’s specialized high schools and the kinds of opportunity hoarding enjoyed by more privilege (sic) racial and ethnic communities were in fact de jure consequences of lingering legacies of racism and white supremacy.” 

In fact, the primary beneficiaries of the current system—as Kirkland surely knows— are nonwhite. Asian students, many of whom are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants from China, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, are dramatically overrepresented in the specialized high schools. Though Asians constitute less than 16 percent of the citywide school population, they make up more than half of the students in the elite schools and a staggering 75 percent of the kids at Stuyvesant High School. 

The new system that de Blasio wants to impose, which will require legislative approval, is engineered to increase black and Latino enrollment. It is a quota system in all but name. Granting elite school admission to the top 7 percent of every junior high school will have two immediate effects. It will place bright but underprepared black and Latino students from poor middle schools into demanding educational environments where they will find themselves lost, in a classic example of institutional mismatch. And it will deny thousands of talented Asian students a place that they have earned in elite schools. 

And there is a third effect. The quality of the elite schools—the jewel of the city’s school system—will be diminished, if not destroyed. But de Blasio will be out of office by then. Some future mayor will have to deal with the fallout from the decision to sacrifice merit to racial diversity and equality of opportunity to equality of outcome.

Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office


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