Advocates allege NYC school plan discriminates against Asian Americans

A lawsuit asks a federal judge to stop a plan designed to diversify New York City's elite high schools.
Image: Stuyvesant High School
Students arrive for the first day of school at Stuyvesant High School in New York on Sept. 9, 2015.Mark Lennihan / AP file

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By Agnes Constante

A group of Asian-American education advocates are suing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza for making changes to an admissions policy that they claim discriminates against and disproportionately affects Asian-American students.

De Blasio and Carranza in June announced a plan to boost diversity in New York City’s competitive specialized high schools by expanding the Discovery Program, which offers a certain number of seats at each school to low-income students, and eliminating a standardized test that determines admittance to the schools. They also proposed amending the eligibility criteria to target students at high-poverty high schools.

But the lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court, alleges that changes to the Discovery Program prevent Asian-American students from vying for those seats and violate their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

“Mayor De Blasio has changed the program in a way that discriminates against Asians and makes the specialized schools — he hopes — more racially balanced, more similar to his preferred racial balance of students,” said Wen Fa, an attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest organization that filed the lawsuit. “It’s sort of a gerrymander of sorts.”

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Expansion of the Discovery Program is scheduled to begin in 2019 and would nearly double offers to black and Hispanic students from approximately 9 percent to approximately 16 percent, according to the mayor's office.

Parents protest a proposal by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to eliminate a test for entry into the city's elite public high schools on June 5, 2018WNBC

Targeting only students at high-poverty high schools, the lawsuit argues, prevents Asian Americans from competing for admission through the program. Plaintiffs argue that, based on data from the 2017-18 school year on the likelihood that students at a school live in poverty, 11 of the 24 majority Asian-American schools with eighth-grade enrollment in New York City would lose their eligibility for the Discovery Program. For majority black schools, 20 out of 191 would lose eligibility, while nine of 243 majority Hispanic schools would lose eligibility, the lawsuit asserts.

Asian Americans are the majority of students at New York City’s specialized high schools. The three most prominent — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School — accounted for 74 percent, 66 percent and 61 percent of students, respectively, during the 2017-18 school year, data show. According to the mayor's office, only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Latino, even though those groups make up 70 percent of the city’s overall student population.

In an email, Will Mantell, New York City Department of Education press secretary, said the proposed reforms will expand opportunity and raise the bar at specialized high schools.

“Our schools are academically stronger when they reflect the diversity of our City,” Mantell wrote.

In addition to these changes, de Blasio and Carranza have also proposed phasing out over a three-year period the exam that serves as the sole basis for admission into eight of the nine specialized schools. In place of the exam, a certain percentage of seats at the schools would go to top performers from each middle school. This would boost offers to black and Latino students to 45 percent, according to the mayor's office. Abolishing the exam, however, would require approval from the state legislature.

Raymond Wong, legal director and board member of the Asian American Coalition for Education, one of the plaintiffs in the case, called the changes “a very backward way of doing things” and noted that the exam used to determine admissions has been in place since the ’70s.

Plaintiffs are asking for a preliminary injunction to halt the proposed changes while the case is pending and for a permanent injunction to prohibit modifications to the program from being implemented.

“Precisely the type of low-income students that the Discovery Program was designed to help, de Blasio is actually now hurting those students because he wants to racially balance the specialized high schools,” Fa said.

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