Mayor Bill de Blasio rode into office on themes of social justice, but even though New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, he was all but silent on the issue during the first years of his administration, reluctant even to use the word “segregation.”
But the politics around the issue have changed, and with his re-election behind him, Mr. de Blasio this weekend showed his willingness to take on some of the most fiercely guarded schools in the system, proposing that the city’s specialized high schools stop admitting students based on a single test.
“Even a few years ago, there were strong voices talking about the lack of diversity in some of our schools,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference on Sunday at Junior High School 292 Margaret S. Douglas in East New York, Brooklyn. “But that has now become a crescendo — it’s become so intense in the city, this demand for fairness.”
There are eight specialized schools that admit students based on their performance on a test. While the number of students they serve is relatively small, they take on outsize importance because they are among the most prestigious schools in the city — like Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science — and because their demographics deviate so starkly from the system over all.
Black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school students, but they received just 10 percent of offers for seats at specialized schools this fall. Both white and Asian students, on the other hand, are overrepresented. About 27 percent of the offers went to white students, who make up 15 percent of the school system; 52 percent went to Asian students, who make up 16 percent.
“We have to make sure the very best high schools are open to every New Yorker, every kind of New Yorker,” Mr. de Blasio said. “They need to look like New York City.”
Mr. de Blasio’s plan has two parts. The first, which the city can do on its own, would set aside 20 percent of seats at each of the eight specialized schools for poor students who just miss the cutoff score on the test. Those students would be pulled from high-poverty schools, which tend to have a higher concentration of black or Hispanic students. They would be eligible to earn their seat by completing the city’s summer Discovery program.
The city has estimated modest gains from these changes, which will begin going into effect for the September 2019 admissions cycle. Officials expect the percentage of black and Latino students at those schools to rise to about 16 percent of seats from 9 percent.
The more substantial proposal calls for eliminating the test entirely and instead basing admissions on a combination of a student’s class rank and scores on state standardized tests, taking the top 7 percent of students from each of the city’s middle schools. The Education Department said that about 7 percent of specialized seats would be set aside for students from nonpublic schools, like private schools or Catholic schools. High performers from those schools would be chosen by lottery.
That change would require action in Albany because a state law requires that specialized high schools in New York City use a standardized exam to determine admissions. Mr. de Blasio said he would press the Legislature to adopt these changes, and a bill to put them into effect was introduced in the Assembly on Friday. But the Senate has been extremely resistant to eliminating the test, and Sunday’s news conference was replete with references to how difficult the road ahead there would be. Democrats are hoping to flip the chamber in November, which would improve the bill’s chances.
“We have a new chancellor,” Mr. de Blasio said of Richard A. Carranza, who took over in April. “I’m starting a new term as mayor. We have a lot of changes happening in Albany, and I think the stars have aligned to get the optimum outcomes, which is a change in the law.”
Still, given the limited scope of the Discovery program, Mr. de Blasio’s proposal is heavily dependent on legislative action in Albany, and some advocates consider the proposal to be quite modest. Many legal experts have said the city could immediately reclassify five of the eight specialized schools, allowing Mr. de Blasio to change their admissions criteria without the Legislature. But the mayor said on Sunday that his administration believed that the law is unclear on this point.
Mr. Carranza, the grandson of immigrants from Mexico, has helped to change the tenor of the conversation, speaking about his experience as a “man of color” and segregation in the school system. But Richard Buery, a former deputy mayor in the de Blasio administration who worked on education, said the specialized schools plan had been a long time coming.
“The team at the D.O.E. has been working on this literally for years,” Mr. Buery said. “One thing I do know is they’ve seen that the other things they’ve done, the less aggressive plans, haven’t been having impact.”
Those plans involved efforts to try to increase access to preparation for the specialized test.
Alumni from some of the specialized schools have spoken out against doing away with the test, saying the new proposal would introduce subjectivity into what has been an objective and meritocratic process.
Soo Kim, the president of the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association, said that while his organization wants to address the fact that certain groups are underrepresented, he sees the current conversation as extremely problematic.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but they’re saying these schools are too Asian, so there must be something wrong,” Mr. Kim said. “Am I the only one who looks at that and says, ‘I don’t understand how that’s even legal?’”
Mr. de Blasio flatly denied that his plan was “anti-anyone” and said such accusations were an attempt to sow division.
Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said he also has concerns about the plan to set aside 7 percent of seats for students from nonpublic schools, saying it would punish families at those institutions.
“I think it’s outrageous,” he said. “Either you have equal opportunity or you don’t. Last time I looked at the law, separate but equal was unconstitutional.”
Matt Gonzales, director of the School Diversity Project at New York Appleseed, was underwhelmed by Mr. de Blasio’s moves for very different reasons: While he was pleased at the orientation of the plan, he described the moves as largely symbolic. He said the Discovery changes would help a few more black and Hispanic students, but the mayor’s own numbers show it would hardly be a sea change. And he said he was not terribly hopeful that the Legislature would be open to Mr. de Blasio’s message.
“It’s certainly a positive step,” he said, “even if it is a baby step.”
But at the news conference on Sunday, Mr. de Blasio indicated there was more to come.
“If you can fix this problem you can fix anything,” Mr. de Blasio said. “These are the most respected, most prestigious schools in the city; we will not allow them to be agents of unfairness. Changing them sends a message that everything is going to change.”
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