Asian-American parents of gifted students have not traditionally been an activist constituency. But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempts to remove merit from the equation for New York City’s specialized high schools and gifted programs brought a forceful response from those whose children would be affected. Beginning in 2018, many parents—especially, but not exclusively, Asian-Americans—entered the political arena for the first time. Three years later, we have secured some important victories: Asian-Americans made their voices heard in the 2021 elections, incoming mayor Eric Adams has shown signs that he understands these parental concerns, and even de Blasio has expressed some regret for his handling of the issue. But if resistance to these plans largely succeeded in making the mayor back down, progressives haven’t given up the fight to make the specialized schools more “equitable”—or, rather, to equalize outcomes. The fight, in which I have been deeply involved, continues.
With a budget of $38 billion, the New York City Department of Education spends $29,448 per student, according to the Independent Budget Office, well above the U.S. average. But the DOE makes every excuse to avoid accountability for its failures. Its continued attacks on certain students based on their race imperils the accelerated learning opportunities that are often the only reason for families to stay in the city’s public school system.
It all began on the first weekend of June 2018. Most families were focused on the end of the school year when de Blasio announced his plans to change the admissions policies of the specialized high schools. These schools, which determine admission based on a standardized test known as the SHSAT, were largely made up of Asian-American students, with much lower proportions of blacks and Hispanics. De Blasio’s newly appointed schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, reinforced the mayor’s view, saying that no ethnic group owns the specialized high schools.
In a school system where half the students don’t perform at grade level, the DOE’s apparent strategy was to distract from its failures by finding a convenient scapegoat. De Blasio had already tried and failed to change the admissions policies to the specialized high schools during his first term, when he said at several public meetings that the schools didn’t “look like New York.” Facing other challenges and concerned about his political future, the mayor eventually dropped his push to end the single-test admissions policy. In his second term, however, he restarted his offensive against the specialized high schools. In spring 2018, supported by a chancellor better known for sowing racial conflict than for improving academic performance, the mayor seemed emboldened.
Asian-American supporters of the merit-based system were apprehensive. On April 28, 2018, we held a rally that started at City Hall, continued in a march over the Brooklyn Bridge, and culminated at Cadman Plaza. I held a simple sign: “Keep SHSAT.” Other signs bore messages including “The Test Is Not the Problem,” “Educate, Do Not Discriminate, Keep SHSAT,” “Let My People Study,” and, in a sign that organized political action was on the horizon, “Vote Them Out.” We brought banners written in Chinese and English and carried American flags.
On June 2, 2018—two months after Carranza had started as chancellor—the administration unveiled its plan to change the admissions policy for the city’s specialized high schools. De Blasio called the test a “roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.” He asked: “Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools?” Asian parents wondered why their own daughters or sons didn’t seem to count in the mayor’s estimation; they sensed that their children were being targeted to lose their chance to get into the city’s best high schools.
The plan, which required action by the state legislature, would replace the SHSAT with a new formula that would increase the share of black and Hispanic students in the specialized high schools—and cut the Asian population in these schools by half. The move was made in defiance of a study that the DOE itself had commissioned, showing that the SHSAT successfully identified strong academic performers.
The specialized high schools have long provided opportunities for excellence to students regardless of income or background. Even before the single-test admissions criterion was enshrined in the state Hecht-Calandra Act, students were admitted via the test alone. From the 1970s to the 1990s, before the city shuttered gifted programs in largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods, the selective schools served many more students from these communities than they do today. Brooklyn Tech, for instance, was majority black and Hispanic for 20 years running. State law required, as it still does, that admission to these schools be based solely on the results of a competitive examination. As the city’s demographics changed, so did the demographics of the schools. Today, Asians form the largest bloc of students passing the competitive entrance examination, followed by whites.
The administration’s attack on merit threatened to undo a longstanding, if tacit, bargain that the city had struck with parents of high achievers. For decades, parents of students who performed at grade level or better could count on sending their kids to school and expecting them to be educated in basic academic skills. Many students below grade level, however, were confined to failing public schools—an unacceptable reality, but not one caused by the existence of higher-performing schools. In the early 2000s, charter schools became a lifeline, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, providing educational choice to the same families that the city’s public school system had failed to serve effectively. The success of many charters helped demonstrate that the best strategy is to grow the number of excellent schools for all students—not to reduce the number of such schools in the interest of “equity.”
For the most part, Asian immigrant parents, aware of the deficiencies of the American K-12 system, do not view the gifted programs and schools as particularly exceptional. For these families, gifted programs and screened schools are just a way of getting a reasonable education. If Asian-American parents are unsatisfied with their children’s education, they often seek after-school programs to make up for these deficiencies, and perhaps even provide some advancement. These choices often come at significant financial cost, but it is a sacrifice they are willing to make.
De Blasio sold his admissions proposal with vague language, but he couldn’t disguise his goal: to slash Asian enrollment. Within days of the administration’s announcement, Asian-Americans, especially those of Chinese descent, began protesting. The Coalition of Asian Americans for Civil Rights (CAACR), the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY, of which I am the founding president), and a host of other Chinese associations met in a Brooklyn Chinatown restaurant with supportive elected officials. CACAGNY and CAACR reached out to civic organizations and to parents.
The organizations then led a protest of several hundred at City Hall. The next day, CACAGNY and Chinese parents confronted Eric Adams, then the Brooklyn borough president. Adams had supported the changes, but soon after meeting with us, he revised his position: he supported keeping the existing schools as they were but urged the creation of additional selective high schools. These schools would use different admissions criteria to increase seats for students who might perform better under other standards.
The following Sunday, about 5,000 protested at City Hall. I shared the bullhorn with Chinese leaders and parents as well as students and elected officials of all races and backgrounds. Parent and student associations from the specialized high schools and from other schools that supported group-blind merit also participated. I later joined the Korean and South Asian community representatives in protest. And soon afterward, hundreds of students and parents marched from Brooklyn Borough Hall to City Hall. When I turned around on the Brooklyn Bridge from the head of the march, I saw our supporters and our signs stretching all the way back to Brooklyn.
The dizzying pace of rallies, meetings with legislators, and forums continued over the next few months, mostly attended by Asian-Americans. People who had never been involved in politics began showing up. Many spoke English with hesitancy. Many had never attended meetings of Community Education Councils (CEC), the local school boards made of elected parents and political appointees, let alone run to serve on them; some were not even registered to vote. A few years later, some are running for office.
The SHSAT was a major topic for local school boards. At CEC2, I said of preparing for the test that “we call it studying, and we don’t apologize for it.” Parents were glad to know that someone would speak up for their interests. CEC2’s president, Maud Maron, told me that she was struck by what I pointed out as the right of Asian-Americans, and of anyone else, to study. She had already proposed a resolution against the de Blasio plan. Maron did not know it, but this was a pivotal moment: she would soon be smeared and attacked by ideologues who wanted to eliminate merit in the name of equity. But despite the attacks against her, she maintained her support of meritocracy and accelerated education.
By the end of 2018, PTO-IS 187 (Parent Teacher Organization-Intermediate School 187), CACAGNY, the Asian American Coalition for Education, and several individual Chinese, including Phil Wong and Yifang Chen, would join as plaintiffs represented pro bono by Pacific Legal Foundation in a federal lawsuit against the city and DOE for its discriminatory changes. The case remains in the courts.
The attack on the specialized high schools was only one of many attacks on education during the months before the lawsuit was announced in December 2018. The issue was affecting not only Chinese-Americans but also Koreans, Bangladeshis (the fastest-growing group in specialized high schools), Russians, and all who worked hard but did not fall into the administration’s favored groups. This was an assault on all; alliances needed to be built. Non-Asians had to meet with Asians.
The specialized high schools were just a starting point. After a meeting mid-summer between Chinese groups and a multiethnic group of parent and alumni leaders, CEC2 and Stuyvesant school leadership team member John Keller said ominously to me that city hall’s next targets would be the gifted programs and screened schools. I agreed. Parents had to decide: would you fight to save your kids’ chance at opportunity, or vote with your feet?
Under the guise of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the DOE was pursuing a path of division, exclusion, and intolerance. Defenders of the system argued that K-8 should be fixed for all students, but the DOE strategy, with Chancellor Carranza leading the charge, was different: to eliminate objective standards, gifted programs, and screened schools; to ignore basic academic skills; to allow for grade fraud so that failing students could pass; to prioritize identity over education; to move children around so that schools could be brought down to the same level; and to call anyone disagreeing with these policies racist.
Matters escalated in 2019. SHSAT supporters attended rallies, forums, and hearings and reached out to legislators. Chinese parents still formed the largest group, but the list of supporting parents, CEC members, would-be CEC members, and supporters grew. A small group of us, including Brooklyn Borough Park’s PTO IS 187 president Vito LaBella, Keller, and Maron, gathered in March 2019 in a Manhattan Chinatown church to discuss the proposals. I counted also longtime supporters of academic merit such as Jon Roberts, a former president of the Bronx Science PTA and of their alumni association, and Linda Lam, the first Chinese president of the Stuyvesant Parents Association, along with newcomers such as Chien Kwok and Yiatin Chu, joined later by other more recent immigrants, such as Donghui Zhang. This discussion eventually led to the creation of Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE).
Different accents, particularly Russian and Asian ones, were common; those who had experienced the evils of group-identity politics in China and Russia were particularly concerned that such forces were ascendant in New York and would be aimed at their children. If the top schools were equalized for reasons of political expediency, they would be worthless.
While the Chinese and Asian parents continued to form the central core, the broader alliance of concerned supporters for accelerated education grew. More parents ran for and won seats on CECs, as well as on such local entities as parent-teacher organizations and leadership teams. Groups from PLACE NYC and the New York City Residents Alliance (NYCRA) to Queens Parents United (QPU) and Parents Defending Education resolved to increase academic rigor in all schools and to support learners at their appropriate level. Many also connected with advocates outside of New York.
PLACE, NYCRA, and QPU quickly became significant advocacy groups for parents. They grew networks of parents for meetings, rallies, petitions, statements, and for taking seats on CECs, PTAs, SLTs, and beyond. Within months, PLACE became a hub for information and advocacy. In December 2019, it held its first large meeting, a roundtable with John Liu, head of the state senate education committee for the city, and in February 2020 held a panel discussion with legislators in Queens.
Weeks later, PLACE shifted its focus. Covid-19 had reached American shores, and school closures and remote learning soon dominated the education discussion.
The DOE’s dysfunctional response to the lockdown left the most vulnerable students even worse off. And the department continued to show its misplaced priorities when it seized the opportunity to eliminate grades, upend gifted-and-talented programs, and turn selective admissions into lotteries.
The lockdown occurred nearly three-quarters of the way into the 2019–2020 school year. By that time, students should have had a sense of their performance, but no grades were given and no failures recorded. The city seized its excuse to stop measuring the performance of both students and teachers, even though many students’ families protested that completed and documented work was ignored.
Selective programs also came under the gun. The city announced that honors math classes would be eliminated in Wagner Middle School; algebra dropped at the Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies; and advanced-placement classes reduced at LaGuardia High School. In testimony to the failed logic of these efforts, the Wagner Middle School principal offered that the honors math class had to go because too many students wanted to enroll in it. Fortunately, in these cases, parental resistance led the schools to back down.
Gifted programs remained in the crosshairs, however. Admissions to such programs had relied on objective tests prior to 2020. But the DOE, using Covid-related school closures as cover, cut back gifted education. Asian parents understood that this again implicated their children, as Asian students account for 43 percent of the Gifted & Talented seats. The lesson from de Blasio and the city education establishment was that identity trumped merit. By 2021, the DOE had announced the termination of gifted programs for the following year, to be replaced by “acceleration for all.” To propose “acceleration for all” is to suggest either a fantasy or suppression of the highest achievers. This time, parent groups were unable to stop the changes to the gifted programs.
Long-term signs are mixed. In March 2021, Meisha Ross Porter became the new schools chancellor after Carranza resigned. Porter, a career bureaucrat, has a similar history of using racial scapegoats to distract from a record of failure. Only time will tell whether Eric Adams, when he takes office as de Blasio’s successor, will pursue these policies. Early indications suggest that Adams may be open to retaining the gifted programs.
Meantime, parents are taking matters into their own hands. For June 2021’s general primaries, many of the groups mentioned above held Zoom forums for candidates for mayor, city council, and borough president. PLACE publicly endorsed candidates, counting many winners among them. Chinese parents and PLACE members ran for CECs and won in unprecedented numbers. Asian-Americans participated more as voters and as candidates. PLACE’s endorsed candidates made big sweeps in some CECs for stronger advocacy for better accelerated education for all students. They will be challenged to find accountability in the system, including in instruction and grading, and in the use of funds. Parents, many with limited English, became better informed and advocated and demonstrated peacefully. Their activism will remain crucial.
As Adams prepares to take office on January 1, 2022, learning loss after the shutdown may have left many students nearly a grade behind. Health and safety issues persist. If the DOE remains determined to inflict further damage on the city’s education system by using identity politics to attack accelerated education, those challenges will be even harder to overcome. A focus on academic rigor is critical for the success of public education in the city, especially as many families weigh whether to remain here. New York needs quality education for all—and racial bean-counting is no way to achieve it.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images