National News

Specialized Schools, Surrounded for Decades by a Legislative Moat

Posted June 8, 2018 9:01 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — In New York’s ragged history of race, class, privilege and equity, the city’s specialized high schools have long been proxies. For some, they are the ideal of meritocratic opportunity, incubators of working-class genius and talent; others see their admissions policies as the picture of “monumental injustice,” as Mayor Bill de Blasio described them this month in Chalkbeat.

Now, in a system where the overwhelming majority of students have no access to advanced science or math classes, no matter how capable they are, the mayor and the new schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, are campaigning to change the admission process at the specialized schools, the most famous and prestigious in the city.

A single competitive test on one day decides admission. Black and Latino students, who make up about two-thirds of the public school population, are only 15 percent of those offered seats at the eight specialized schools.

Those admission policies, affecting just about 2 percent of the city’s students, are nevertheless charged with high-voltage symbolism. Some version of a test had been used for much of the 20th century, but in May 1971, the state Legislature made it law.

The unambiguous purpose was to cut off a study of whether the test should be changed. One effect was to stop an effort to expand the admission of black and Latino students that was underway during the administration of John V. Lindsay, the liberal mayor. Like his predecessor, de Blasio will have to persuade a Legislature that only occasionally gives him what he wants. By waiting until his second and final term to take a major stand, de Blasio is insulated from the recrimination of city voters, since he won’t have to face them again.

Included with the 1971 bill in the library of the state Legislature is a folder, the “bill jacket,” that contains notes from those for and against the law.

Those arguments are echoed today, not only over admissions to the specialized schools, but over segregation across the city school system, and the supercharged success of many children of Asian immigrants.

“The political pressure groups who continue to attack the four specialized high schools intend to eventually destroy these schools and their specialized status in science, mathematics, music and art,” wrote Burton G. Hecht, D-Bronx, who sponsored the 1971 bill in the Assembly. The Senate sponsor was John D. Calandra, R-Bronx.

The bill was endorsed by the principals whose schools would be covered by it: Stuyvesant High School, the Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School and LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts.

“Attacks against the specialized high schools invariably get much attention in the news media,” Louis Weiss, the acting principal of Brooklyn Tech, wrote. “This tends to drive more middle class out of the city and many gifted children into parochial and private high schools.”

Among those opposing the bill were the schools chancellor, the board of education and then-mayor Lindsay. On behalf of the school system, the lobbyist Peter A. Piscitelli wrote that the chancellor did not intend to change the use of a competitive exam, but wanted a committee to study serious charges “that the examinations discriminate on cultural grounds, against Negro and Puerto Rican applicants.” Regina Rosenthal, a student at Bronx Science, wrote to Calandra that she had come to question the admission policies. “I know many black and Puerto Rican students from my former junior high school who, if accepted at Bronx Science, could have benefited greatly from our educational facilities,” she said. “I know that everyone at Bronx Science could have benefited greatly from these students.”

Without hearings, study or consideration of any change, an admissions moat was dug at high speed by the Legislature nearly a half century ago. At the time, white students made up close to 90 percent of the specialized schools; today, they are fewer than 20 percent. Most students are Asian. The number of black and Latino students has risen and fallen, but has never come close to keeping up with their presence in the city schools. At Stuyvesant, the most competitive of the schools, only 10 black students received offers this year. The specialized schools are far from bastions of privilege, dominated by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Carranza has dismissed the concerns of Asian groups that their children would lose seats if he is able to eliminate the test and rely on factors like class rank.

“I don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admissions to these schools,” he said in a television interview.

The reputation of the specialized schools rests, in part, on the outstanding scores their students get on science tests, like physics.

Most city students never come near a physics classroom. Although it is the keystone discipline of modern science and technology, the subject is barely taught in the public high schools, outside a select few programs such as those at the specialized schools and elsewhere.

That lack of opportunity hits with greatest force in schools where most students are black or Latino, according to Dr. Angela Kelly, a professor of science education at Stony Brook University.

“If a student wants to pursue a college major in life science, engineering, or health, physics is really a gateway course for being able to be succeed,” said Kelly. “Having limited opportunity to learn physics has many social and economic ramifications.”

That tells us something else. Hidden behind the proxies is another monumental injustice: The supply of excellent schools cannot meet the demands of capable students, whatever their backgrounds.