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Court throws out claim that selective NYC high schools discriminate against Asian American students in admissions

A 2018 diversity initiative could not have been discriminatory, the judge said, because more students of Asian descent were admitted under it.
The Bronx High School of Science
The Bronx High School of Science in New York.Google Maps

A federal judge in the Southern District of New York dismissed a lawsuit that accused city leaders of “gerrymandering” the city’s selective high school admissions process in 2018, with plaintiffs claiming that a plan to increase enrollment of disadvantaged students discriminated against Asian American students. 

Judge Edgardo Ramos on Wednesday denied the request from two Asian civil rights groups, a parent-teacher organization and Asian American parents to halt a diversity initiative that has since been instituted in New York City’s most selective high schools. The policy could not have been discriminatory, Ramos said, because on the whole, more students of Asian descent had been offered admission under the measure, not fewer. 

The controversy began four years ago, when former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and former New York City Department of Education chancellor Richard Carranza announced an expansion of a city program mandated by a 1997 state law that aimed to increase the number of low-income students in the city’s most selective high schools. The “highly prestigious” schools, as the judge described them in the decision, typically admit students only through a high-stakes test or the Discovery program. 

In 2018, only 10% of students enrolled in the selective schools were Black or Latino, despite Black and Latino students making up nearly 70% of all students in New York City, the mayor’s office said at the time

To address that disparity, de Blasio and Carranza, in June 2018, increased the number of slots at the schools available to students through the Discovery program from 5% to 20% of each school’s incoming class. They also adjusted the eligibility criteria to specifically recruit from lower-income schools and recommended doing away with the Specialized High School Admissions Test, a plan that failed to materialize. 

In December of that year, a group of parents and advocates for Asian American students argued the reorganization of the program violated the Equal Protection Clause by operating as a “set-aside” that would disproportionately prohibit Asian American students from competing for a fifth of the seats in the city’s most selective schools and intentionally decrease the number of Asian American students. 

In 2019, the court denied the plaintiffs’ request to halt the program with a preliminary injunction. In his decision on Wednesday, Ramos said in 2019 and 2020, after the changes had taken effect, overall representation of Asian American students at selective high schools increased. 

Lawyers for the defendants did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel at the Legal Defense Fund represented a group of intervening defendants, which included the New York Civil Liberties Union, a number of parents, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, and others. Although arguments from the intervening defendants were not considered in the judges’ order, Kleinman praised the decision. 

“This decision is a victory for diversity and equal opportunity in education for the city’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic student body,” Kleinman wrote in an email to NBC News. 

Christopher Kieser, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs, said in an email he was “disappointed” in the decision, and the plaintiffs are considering next steps. 

The New York City Department of Education did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.