New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard A Carranzahas announced an affirmative action plan this June to “improve diversity” in New York City’s eight testing specialized high schools.

In December, Asian American groups responded by suing the mayor and the chancellor over what they believe was a move to restrict – and even deliberately lower – the number of Asian Americans enrolling in these top schools.

A new affirmative action plan

The proposed plan would eliminate standardized testing in the admissions process. At present, the eight specialized high schools in New York – including Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Technical High School and, the most competitive based on admissions, Stuyvesant High School – require students in grades eight or nine to take a Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) as a factor for admissions.

The other part of De Blasio and Carranza’s plan is to expand the Discovery Program – which offers a certain number of seats in elite high schools to low-income students – from 5% to 20% of the total seats at each school.

Under New York State law, specialized high schools may sponsor a Discovery Program to give disadvantaged students an opportunity to attend these schools. In summer 2017, only 100 schools sent students through Discovery.

Under the new plan, 215 schools would participate in Discovery and offers for admission in Brooklyn and the Bronx would increase by 500 – five times more.

As a result, total offers to Black and Hispanic students to these elite public schools would nearly double from 9% to about 16%.

At present, Black and Hispanic students make up 68% of the New York City high school population, but only 9% gained admission to a specialized high school. At the same time, Asian Americans make up 16% of the city’s public school population, but take up nearly 75% of seats at Stuyvesant, 66% at Bronx Science and 60% at Brooklyn Tech.

Furthermore, in terms of middle school representation, students from only 4% of middle schools – 21 schools in total – took half the seats in these specialized schools.

To put this in perspective, this year only 10 black students were offered seats at Stuyvesant High School, a specialized high school with the most competitive admissions process.

In an email interview with Asia Times, Will Mantrell, the Press Secretary for the NYC Department of Education, said this plan would roll out over two years, starting in September 2018.

“Our reforms will expand opportunity and raise the bar at our specialized high schools. Our schools are academically stronger when they reflect the diversity of our city,” Mantrell said.

Targeted group?

However, a lawsuit filed this month in federal court alleges that the new program discriminates against Asian American students and violates their equal protection rights under the 14th amendment.

The plaintiffs include a middle school Parent-Teacher Association – the Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School PTO – Asian American Coalition for Education, Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York and three individual parents.

As it stands, two-thirds of students admitted to the Discovery Program are Asian American. By reserving 20% of seats for low-income students who do not make the cut-off score for admission, they claim that fewer Asian American students – who are not targeted under the new Discovery program – will be able to gain admission to the top schools in New York.

Christopher Kieser, an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, the group representing the plaintiffs, told Asia Times: “The Department of Education’s own documents show that the expansion and reorganization of the Discovery Program was done principally to alter the racial balance of the schools.”

Asian Americans hit hardest

Another issue is that Asian Americans who belong to low-income groups are left out of the Discovery Program. Oliver Dunford, another attorney from Pacific Legal Foundation who is involved in the case, told Asia Times that the proposed Discovery Program would use a new “Economic Need Index” (ENI), a low-income measure which rates the “economic need” of schools rather than individual students.

“So, for example, a severely low-income student may be prevented from applying through Discovery simply because he or she attends a school that is not in (enough) economic need,” Dunford said.

The ENI, according to Dunford, carefully omits a significant number of heavily Asian-American schools that traditionally send a significant number of students to the Specialized High Schools.

“For the primarily Asian-American Christa McAuliffe Middle School (which just barely fails to qualify under the new ENI), no low-income students could qualify for the Discovery Program,” said Dunford.

This seems to be the intention of the new plan: to increase Black and Hispanic enrollment at the expense of Asian American students.

Discovery was two-thirds Asian last year. That is why the mayor and chancellor decided to restrict it to certain schools with an Economic Need Index of 60% or greater,” said Kieser.

“Low-income Asian-American students will be disproportionately affected, as they disproportionately attend schools that do not make the cut. This is not an accident; it’s how the plan is supposed to work.

“Asian-American students are now disproportionally ineligible to compete for 20% of Specialized High School seats.”

For low-income families, enrollment in an elite, public high school is seen as one of the only viable pathways to an elite education and to top-performing colleges in the country. The other option, private schools, remains beyond their financial reach.

One of the plaintiffs, the Asian American Coalition for Education, is also involved in a lawsuit against Harvard University. They allege that the university’s admission process unfairly discriminates against Asian Americans who do well in tests and extracurriculars, but are over-represented in the prospective applicant pool.