To the outsider, New York City is world-famous for attractions like Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and the Museum of Modern Art. But to a family of locals, perhaps no landmark impacts public discourse more than the city’s illustrious program for gifted and talented students known as the Specialized High Schools.
These are a group of eight highly selective, publicly funded high schools that offer meritorious students in NYC the opportunity to receive an advanced education. To many denizens of NYC, these schools, which include the famous Stuyvesant and Bronx Science High Schools, represent the hopes and dreams of parents desiring that their children have a better life. Just last week, Democratic Mayor Bill De Blasio released a plan to fundamentally upend the way these schools operate, especially as they relate to its most frequented minority group: Asian-Americans.
De Blasio’s plan would eliminate NYC’s Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), and replace it with a requirement that the top seven percent of every middle school in NYC be admitted to a Specialized High School – thus exchanging a fundamentally standardized, meritocratic applications process for one predicated on demographics. This approach would heavily favor minorities in low-performing schools (which trend black and Hispanic) over those in high performing schools (which trend Asian). His plan would also reserve 20 percent of seats for schools in “high-poverty” areas.
The proposal came about as a reaction to what De Blasio perceived as a “racial bias” to the SHSAT, although this time the racial bias doesn’t have to do with white people, but that of another minority.
As of 2018, Asian-Americans make up approximately 52 percent of the composition of these Specialized High Schools. Asian-Americans tend to be more educationally competitive at the high school level than even whites – the average score of an Asian-American on the SAT is about 63 total points higher than the average score of a white American, and about 240 total points higher than the average score of a black American.
Contrary to popular belief, however, this does not mean that Asian-Americans are “robots” weaned at birth to take tests. Yet, these stereotypes often fuel the great hurdles that Asian-Americans must overcome in getting the equal treatment they deserve, especially in the realm of public education. Specialized Schools Chancellor Richard Garranza, who championed de Blasio’s proposal, inflamed these frustrations when he said, in reference to Asians, “I just don’t buy the narrative that one ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”
That comment did not wash over well with many in NYC’s Asian-American community. “[De Blasio] never had this problem when Stuyvesant (High School) was all white,” said Kenneth Chiu of the NYC Asian Democratic Club. “He never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all Jewish.”
Indeed, de Blasio’s new plan to switch the admissions policy to the top seven percent of all NYC high schools, and reserve 20 percent of the slots to favor other minorities, is a thinly veiled shot at Asian-American excellence in America today. Asian families, many of whom are poor immigrants living in Chinatown, prepare their children years in advance to secure a spot at a better high school than their socioeconomic status would otherwise dictate. De Blasio’s plan would penalize these competitive Asian students just because they’re around other competitive Asian students who have similar dreams.
Perhaps the most deplorable thing about this plan, however, is the way it would introduce the unhealthy morass of racial identity politics into the Specialized Schools’ standards for excellence above all else. In fact, a similar racially charged plan – a top ten-percent rule for Texas Colleges – was implemented in 1997, and the schools’ reputations suffered as a result. University of Texas-Austin’s graduation rates have stayed frustratingly low; so have its average SAT scores, which impact rankings. The schools must spend millions of dollars to build the proper support network to help underachieving students succeed, bloating the administrative staff and increasing tuition – all while perfectly acceptable alternatives such as community colleges and 2-year programs exist (and work).
When the reputability of an institution declines because of diversity quotas, funds decrease, teachers leave, and no one wins. Asian-Americans are not only fighting for their rights, but also for the commitment to excellence we all want our schools to maintain.
Of course, persistent racial gaps in educational achievement are concerning, but these gaps need to be dealt with at the elementary and middle school level, where the gaps begin to form, rather than the high school level, where the gaps are more or less permanent. The Specialized Schools represent the aspirations of many New Yorkers, but they do not, and cannot, represent the solutions to persistently low black and Hispanic educational achievement. As prominent Asian-American politician Grace Meng (D-NY) argues, “Instead of focusing on comprehensive reform in one effort, the mayor’s legislative push concerning how eight well-performing schools operate isn’t a serious policy proposal; it’s a headline.”
Not only does de Blasio’s plan target a specific racial group to the point of discrimination, it is an affront to meritocracy itself, attempting to turn NYC’s stellar Specialized Schools into the arbiters of his own brand of social justice. The answer to educational racial gaps is not the racial identity politics of de Blasio’s latest proposal. We should all stand against the Mayor’s politicization of excellence.