By Christina Veiga
Overhauling admissions at the city’s prestigious specialized high schools could be just the opening salvo in more aggressive efforts to unravel segregation throughout the city’s school system, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed Sunday.
“Changing them sends the message that everything is going to change,” de Blasio said at a press conference to formally announce the policies he first described in Chalkbeat. “If you can fix this problem, you can fix anything.”
Surrounded by lawmakers, teachers union representatives, students, and educators inside the gymnasium of J.H.S. 292 in East New York, de Blasio said he chose this moment to tackle diversity in elite high schools because he believes he has a mandate from his re-election last year — and noted the arrival of a new schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, who has been outspoken about inequity.
De Blasio, whose more aggressive proposals require legislative action, also pointed to potential power shifts in Albany and growing public pressure in New York City from integration advocates, suggesting bolder action is on the way.
“The stars have now aligned,” the mayor said. “The moment’s right for it.”
Chalkbeat reported exclusively on Saturday that the mayor is pushing to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole determining factor in admissions to eight specialized high schools — and is calling instead for a system that admits top-performing students from every middle school. The city will also expand its Discovery program, which extends admission to low-income students who score just below the cut-off on the entrance exam.
Specialized high schools reliably send students to top colleges and high-profile careers, but relatively few black and Hispanic students attend — one example of the racial segregation that extends to schools across New York City. Only 10 percent of admissions offers for the schools went to black and Hispanic students this year. Citywide, those students make up two-thirds of the population.
“These are the most respected, most prestigious schools in the city. We will not allow them to be agents of unfairness,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio made changing admissions at the specialized high schools part of his campaign when he first ran for office in 2013. After an initial push the next year for changes at the state, the issue largely faded from the mayor’s agenda as he focused his attention of expanding prekindergarten in the city.
The renewed campaign to eliminate the admissions test marks a shift in tone for a mayor who has avoided using the word “segregation.” And some observers have noted that it coincides with the start of a new schools chief who has been far more blunt in questioning how the city sorts students into schools, and who quickly inserted himself into a contentious debate about integration in Upper West Side middle schools.
At Sunday’s press conference, Carranza said the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools is a problem with “the system, not the students.”
Pursuing admissions changes at the schools pits de Blasio against an unfriendly legislature and powerful alumni groups that have fought to preserve the entrance exam. State law requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score, and de Blasio has had a contentious relationship with Republicans in the State Senate, who have repeatedly frustrated the mayor by extending his control of city schools by only one or two years at a time.
But the mayor said that with his educational priority — universal prekindergarten — implemented, he believes the time is right to pivot to another education issue and take this fight to Albany.
Assembly Member Charles Barron has sponsored legislation to nix the exam, and legislators such as state Sen. Roxanne Persaud were on-hand at Sunday’s press conference to pledge support. Under the proposed law, the entrance exam would be phased out over three years. A growing number of seats would be reserved for high-performing students at every middle school each year, until 90 to 95 percent of admissions offers would go to the top 7 percent of students. The rest of the seats would be reserved for a lottery for students in private schools or who are new to the city.
Power dynamics have been shifting in Albany, which could provide the city with an opening for change. A group of breakaway Democrats who worked with Republicans in the State Senate disbanded this year. Additionally, special elections won by new Democratic lawmakers paved the way for Democrats to control a majority of the seats in the Senate. However, one Democratic Senator from Brooklyn has continued to caucus with Republicans, allowing them to control the chamber — for now.
The two other crucial players in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, expressed interest in reforming admissions at the city’s specialized high schools this weekend but did not specifically express support for the bill backed by de Blasio.
“I think the question of equity in education is very important,” Cuomo said at an unrelated event on Sunday. “I think the question on admissions and how schools are segregated, desegregated is a very important issue.” (A Cuomo spokesperson said officials are reviewing the specifics of the bill.)
Still, winning over lawmakers promises to be an uphill battle. New York State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents several Queens neighborhoods with heavily Asian populations, released a statement that she “couldn’t disagree more” with the mayor’s proposal. Asian students are disproportionately enrolled in the city’s specialized high schools, and some advocates have said that changing the admissions criteria will disadvantage a group of students who often come from low-income families.
Alumni groups also promise to be a leading voice of opposition. The alumni foundations of Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical called de Blasio’s plan “absolutely not the answer” to the schools’ diversity problems in a statement released Saturday, and made the familiar argument that the city should instead boost quality at its middle schools to serve as a pipeline to competitive high schools.
“The goal must be to address the systematic, long-term educational challenges facing far too many young people in underrepresented communities,” the alumni groups said. “And help to ensure that all New York City school children have access to the high-quality educational opportunities they deserve.“
While the legislative battle plays out, the city is pursuing other changes that it can make on its own. The city will reserve 20 percent of seats at every specialized high school for students who are in Discovery — just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017. In a push to make sure a more diverse range of students benefits from the expansion, the city will limit the program to students in schools serving mostly poor students.
Reporter Monica Disare contributed to this report. Want more about de Blasio’s proposals? Read Chalkbeat’s earlier take on the plan here and de Blasio’s op-ed here. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools and we partner with them to extend our education coverage in Brooklyn.