In June 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced their plan to phase out the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test over the course of three years in an attempt to increase the number of Black and Latinx students who attend these schools. While this proposal has received significant backlash from lawmakers, alumni, and education groups across the city, it is only one of two proposals that Messrs. de Blasio and Carranza announced as part of the diversity push. The second proposal concerns the discovery program, which allows low-income students who score just under the SHSAT cut-off to enroll in a summer program at a specialized school and gain acceptance in the fall.
The Department of Education plans to increase the percentage of specialized high school admission offers given under the discovery program to 20%, and adjust the economic requirement “so only students in high-poverty schools – at or above 60% on the City’s Economic Need Index [ENI] – will receive offers through Discovery.” The increase to 20% is a 500% increase over the admissions statistics from the class that entered in September 2017, where only about 4% of students were admitted through the discovery program. The DOE anticipates that this change alone would increase the portion of acceptances that go to Black and Latinx students from 9% to 16%. Moreover, while the SHSAT is required as part of a 1971 state law and cannot be repealed by the DOE, the law allows the DOE to control the terms of the discovery program. As such, the plan can go into effect for admissions as soon as September 2019.
However, some stakeholders balked at these proposed changes. In November, over 90 members of Christa McAuliffe IS187 voted unanimously to sue Mayor de Blasio for racial discrimination, alleging that the change in the economic requirements essentially gerrymandered Asian-American students out of eligibility. According to DOE statistics, 68% of Christa McAuliffe students are Asian, while only 8% are black or Hispanic. Of all New York City public middle schools, Christa McAuliffe had the most eighth grade students receive an offer to one of the eight specialized schools where admission is based on the SHSAT. 205 McAuliffe students who took the SHSAT in 2017 were accepted to a specialized school; that comprises 75% of all eighth grade McAuliffe students that year. 66% of McAuliffe students are considered to be in poverty, but under the new Economic Net Income calculation, the school will not be considered high poverty.
The lawsuit, filed jointly by the Christa McAuliffe PTO, two local Asian-American coalition groups, and three Asian-American parents, alleged that the new ENI calculation was “a racial proxy” created to “prevent Asian-American students from competing for admissions through the Discovery Program” because it “disproportionately affects schools with high Asian-American populations.” The lawsuit further alleged that Chancellor Carranza had demonstrated his racial intent when he stated in an interview that “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission” to specialized schools. Kenneth Chiu, the chairman of the NYC Asian-American Democratic Club, went even further, comparing the DOE’s proposal to the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1880s federal law created to prohibit Chinese immigration to the US.
On February 25, 2019, Judge Edgardo Ramos of the US District Court of the Southern District of New York denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, which would have prevented the DOE from implementing the proposal for 2019-2020 admissions, since acceptance letters are released in March. Although this ruling is a short-term victory for the DOE, the court case will proceed over the next few months, meaning that the policy could still be struck down as unconstitutional. If that happens, the DOE would have to revert to its previous ENI calculation, potentially removing any diversity benefit.
Still, the debate over how to diversify specialized high schools — some of the most segregated in the city — will live on. Reconciling fair and accessible admissions criteria with a need for more diversity will be difficult, and legal challenges are likely to mount as the discovery program proposal is implemented.