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De Blasio Has the Power to Desegregate NYC’s Elite High Schools

The Mayor has shifted blame to state lawmakers. But he can take action now if he wants to.

high stakes testing
By: Johanna Miller Director, Education Policy Center, Education Policy Center & Ben Schaefer Former Communications Strategist, Communications

Last week the New York City Department of Education (DOE) announced the admission rates and diversity statistics for the City’s new class of freshmen in its selective high schools. Admission to the City’s eight selective schools – public high schools designed to provide specialized education for talented students – is determined solely by the results of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT.)

And once again, the numbers reflected overwhelming racial disparities and a school system defined by barriers rather than opportunities.

Only nine percent of offers made by elite schools like Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science went to Black and Latinx students this year, down from 11 percent last year. Only eight Black students received offers to Stuyvesant out of 749 spots, and only one Black student was accepted into Staten Island Technical High School, out of 281 freshman seats.

The City’s segregated school system isn’t new. In 2013 Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a message of a Tale of Two Cities and identified education as one of the key drivers of inequity in New York. Now eight years later, there’s been little action and no meaningful integration initiative from City Hall. Instead, the strategy seems to be to stall, pass the blame, and kick the can down the road.

When the numbers were announced, the new DOE Chancellor Meisha Porter read from the mayor’s script. She condemned the test and its discriminatory impact, but deflected responsibility to Albany.

In a statement following the announcement she wrote, “I know from my 21 years as an educator that far more students could thrive in our Specialized High Schools, if only given the chance. Instead, the continued use of the Specialized High School Admissions Test will produce the same unacceptable results over and over again, and it’s far past the time for our students to be fairly represented in these schools.”

She added, “The State law that requires the City to administer the exam must be repealed so we can partner with our communities to find a more equitable way forward, and do right by all of our children.”

Chancellor Porter is right that the test is unacceptable, but wrong when she implies that the City’s hands are tied. If the City wants to end racial segregation in its schools, it can do so now and it must.

If the DOE wants to get rid of the test, it can, at least for the majority of specialized schools. At five of eight specialized high schools, the City has the sole authority to end the use of the test for enrollment.

In its place, the City could develop a more equitable model of assigning children to excellent schools—holistic assessments of their capabilities and potential—or they could drop academic tracking altogether, and ensure that every high school class has a diverse blend of needs and talents.

Ultimately, New York State must take action to repeal the Hecht-Calandra Act, the racially-motivated 70s-era law that restricts access to specialized high schools. That this law is still on our books is a disgrace to our state — and one reason New York’s schools are the most segregated in the nation. But the Mayor can’t continue to blame state lawmakers for not taking action when he bears so much responsibility.

More broadly, keeping the SHSAT in place is a way to preserve a Tale of Two Classrooms—where well-resourced schools are maintained for some New Yorkers, while other schools struggle to hire enough staff, buy supplies, offer enrichment activities, and even make needed repairs. As long as we protect this segregated resource, students will be pitted against each other in a desperate battle to secure a few coveted spots. And other schools will never get what they need.

Education is important to every New York family. Every parent wants to give their child the world, every teacher wants to provide their students with unlimited opportunity, and every student wants to learn and be encouraged. The mayor has the time and authority to add a major desegregation win to his legacy by eliminating screens, including the SHSAT. We hope he will.

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