At a state senate forum earlier this month on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to end the admissions test for New York City’s top high schools, an African-American woman went on a harangue about how Asian-Americans come from “a culture that has no problem with cheating.” Waving a sheaf of “documentation,” McCarthy-style, she railed against “some of the newer immigrants who have come here . . . with that cultural milieu of cheating.” She was not interrupted or challenged by any of the legislators.

But when a 12-year-old, Asian-American middle school girl spoke in favor of retaining the test—asking “If I work hard, shouldn’t I have a higher advantage than those who . . . are just being lazy”—the senators were alert to potentially racially insensitive language. “Be very careful how you prepare them for this argument,” Senator Velmanette Mont­gomery of Brooklyn admonished Asian parents in the audience after the girl testified—taking the word “lazy” as a reference to blacks, though the girl had said nothing about race. “It is your responsibility and . . . obligation that . . . those children do not internalize those racist atti­tudes.”

These anecdotes tell you a lot about the progressive war on New York’s selective “specialized high schools” (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and five others), now dominated by Asian-American students from largely poor and working-class immigrant backgrounds. It’s a war being fought on two fronts, and both involve attacks on Asian-Americans that would be unim­aginable against any other minority group.

The main action is in the state legislature, where the Democratic takeover of the senate last fall gives the Left its best chance to get rid of the 48-year-old state law that requires a competitive exam as the sole criterion for admission to the selective high schools. De Blasio and his schools chancellor Richard Carranza are pushing an alternative scheme that would cut Asian enrollment in half.

The other skirmish, in the courts, concerns the one exception to the current test require­ment: a remedial-admissions program for disadvantaged students, which de Blasio and Carranza are vastly expanding by executive fiat, while manipulating the admissions criteria so that many poor Asian kids no longer qualify.

The bill backed by the mayor and liberal lawmakers would repeal the 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act, which provides that admission “shall be solely and exclusively by taking a compet­itive, objective and scholastic achievement examination,” though the test requirement actually dates to the 1920s. The de Blasio proposal would phase out the test over three years, replacing it with guaranteed admission for students in the top 5 percent to 7 percent of their eighth-grade classes (provided they were also in the top quarter of eighth-grade students citywide). This cohort would not be determined by grades, but by “multiple measures of student achieve­ment,” determined by the chancellor. And while these “multiple measures” would include grades, as well as scores on standardized state tests, the chancellor exclusively would determine “the weight of each such measure.”

Even if the class rankings were confined to grades and standardized test scores, the changes would have a dramatic impact on Asian enrollment—and on the academic quality of the student body. A study by the city’s Inde­pendent Budget Office found that while the de Blasio plan would dramatically increase black and Hispanic enrollment in the specialized schools from 10 percent to 46 percent, it would cut Asian enrollment virtually in half, from 61 percent to 31 percent, while white enrollment would only drop from 24 percent to 20 percent. The same study also found that 10 percent of the students at these elite STEM schools—which have produced 14 Nobel Laureates—would not meet basic profi­ciency standards in math.

The smart money seems to be that the mayor’s bill will not pass this session, despite the new Democratic majority in the senate. Grassroots opposition in the Asian community has led even some usually reliable liberals to abandon the measure. But one can’t underestimate the power of “wokeness” on the left these days, and with the racial provocateur Carranza blasting Hecht-Calandra as “racist,” Democrats might be pushed into repealing it in a frenzy of virtuous fervor.

Meantime, de Blasio and Carranza have moved to limit the test requirement administratively by significantly expanding and revamping a remedial-admissions program. Hecht-Calandra permitted the specialized schools to “maintain a discovery program” for “disadvantaged students” who “score[d] below the cut-off” on the exam. The law did not define “disadvantaged,” or specify the size of the program, or just how far “below the cut-off” a student could be. Histori­cally, the program has been restricted to about 4 percent of the seats in the schools, and regulations defined “disadvantaged” in terms of family circumstances. Moreover, each of the schools operated its own program, which was open to those scoring below its individual cut-off score. Thus, Discovery students had typically scored only a few points below their classmates.

Even before de Blasio’s election, the Discovery program had become unworkable due to two actions taken by the administration of former mayor Michael Bloomberg. The city added five new specialized schools, which greatly increased the range of scores between the schools; and it applied the lowest cut-off score among the schools as the benchmark for all of them, for the purposes of the Discovery program. The result is that the program now sets Discovery students up for failure by leapfrogging them several levels above their competency, rather than nurturing them at the next-highest level. So Stuyvesant, with the highest cut-off, is required to accept students whose scores are significantly below the bottom of its class.

The new rules that de Blasio and Carranza are implementing will exacerbate this disparity, perhaps markedly, by expanding the program from roughly 4 percent of the specialized-school population to 13 percent this fall, and a full 20 percent next year. This will raise the cut-off scores for regular admission—due to the smaller number of slots available—and lower the threshold for Discovery admission, due to the larger number of slots.

Even more perniciously, in what appears to be an attempt to exclude poor Asian students, the new rules arbitrarily redefine “disadvantaged” so that poor children who attend schools in middle- or working-class neighborhoods no longer qualify. A new Economic Needs Index gauges Discovery eligibility criteria by community rather than by family poverty. A student living in a homeless shelter in a prosperous area would thus not count as disadvantaged for the purposes of the Discovery program. This new criterion will exclude students from 18 of 23 Asian-majority middle schools.

Asian parents and civic groups have challenged the new Discovery rules in federal court, citing as evidence of discriminatory intent both this racial impact and a statement by Carranza last year that “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.” The district court denied a preliminary injunction, thus allowing the implementation of these changes, but the plaintiffs have appealed the ruling, hoping to block the program’s full expansion, slated for next year.

In denying the injunction, the district judge attempted to explain the “context” of Carranza’s statement. Again, the double standard is jarring. It’s inconceivable that a New York City schools chancellor could make such a remark about any other racial minority group and keep his job, much less avoid a preliminary injunction in a racial discrimination case. Let’s hope that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, with several new Trump appointees, will recognize this.

Photo: Afoot_A. Strakey/Flickr


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next