Liberal New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his progressive allies often accuse conservatives of waging a war on women and love to gin up the “income inequality” and “class warfare” rhetoric.
But they want to wage war on poor and working-class New Yorkers, many of whom happen to be of Asian descent, by radically changing the admissions criteria for the state’s prestigious high schools to benefit wealthy liberals. Asians “have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York.”
In the summer edition of City Journal, Dennis Saffron, an appellate lawyer who was a candidate for city council in Queens, lays out the case against de Blasio’s anti-meritocracy education reforms in an article titled, “The Plot Against Merit: Seeking racial balance, liberal advocates want to water down admissions standards at New York’s elite high schools.”
De Blasio wants to deemphasize merit and test scores in admissions to some of the state’s most prominent specialized high schools, which Saffron concludes will benefit “affluent white students who didn’t study hard enough to perform really well on the test but seem more ‘well-rounded’ than those who did.”
“As always, the losers in this top-bottom squeeze will be the lower middle and working classes,” he observes.
Saffron notes that “New York’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant and the equally storied Bronx High School of Science, along with Brooklyn Technical High School and five smaller schools, have produced 14 Nobel Laureates–more than most countries.” But concerned about the lack of Latinos and blacks at those schools, the NAACP and liberal politicians like “New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, has called for changing the admissions criteria.” Saffron notes that though the socialist de Blasio argues that “relying solely on the test creates a ‘rich-get-richer’ dynamic that benefits the wealthy, who can afford expensive test preparation,” the “reality is just the opposite.”
Saffron tells the story of an Asian immigration named Ting Shi, who “arrived in New York from China when he was seven years of ago, speaking no English”:
For two years, he shared a bedroom in a Chinatown apartment with his grandparents–a cook and a factory worker–and a young cousin, while his parents put in 12-hour days at a small Laundromat they had purchased on the Upper East Side. Ting mastered English and eventually set his sights on getting into Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of New York City’s eight “specialized high schools.” When he was in sixth grade, he took the subway downtown from his parents’ small apartment to the bustling high school to pick up prep books for its eighth-grade entrance exam. He prepared for the test over the next two years, working through the prep books and taking classes at one of the city’s free tutoring programs. His acceptance into Stuyvesant prompted a day of celebration at the Laundromat–an immigrant family’s dream beginning to come true. Ting, now a 17-year-old senior starting at NYU in the fall, says of his parents, who never went to college: “They came here for the next generation.”
“It’s not affluent whites, but rather the city’s burgeoning population of Asian-American immigrants–a group that, despite its successes, remains disproportionately poor and working-class–whose children have aced the exam in overwhelming numbers,” Saffron notes. In other words, kids like Ting are hurt and left behind while privileged kids like de Blasio’s son will ironically get ahead the more “holistic” the admissions policy is. The “holistic” policy “would be much more likely to benefit children of the city’s professional elite than African-American and Latino applicants–while penalizing lower-middle-class Asian-American kids like Ting.”
As Saffron details, since the 1970s, blacks and whites have seen their numbers decrease at these schools as “New York City’s fastest-growing racial minority group, Asian-Americans,” have seen their numbers increase. According to Saffron, “Asian students constituted 6 percent of the enrollment at Stuyvesant in 1970” and now make up “an incredible 73 percent of the student body this year.” At Bronx Science, Asians made up 5 percent in 1970 and make up 62 percent today. At Brooklyn Tech, Asians made up 6 percent in 1970 and now make up 61 percent:
Asians now make up 60 percent of enrollment throughout the specialized schools, though they constitute only 15 percent of New York’s public school population. Blacks and Latinos, by contrast, make up 13 percent of the specialized school population but 70 percent of the overall public school enrollment, while whites account for 24 percent of specialized school enrollment and 14 percent of the overall public school population.
As Saffron mentioned, “looked at another way, 33 percent of Asian test takers and 28 percent of whites, but only 5 percent of blacks and Latinos, gained admission.” And contrary to stereotypes, most of the Asians who make it into these top schools are from some of the poorest families in the city as Asians “have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York”:
They’re hardly affluent, notwithstanding de Blasio’s implication that families who get their kids into the specialized schools are “rich.” True, Asians nationally have the highest median income of any racial group, including whites–and in New York City, their median household income ranks second to that of whites and well ahead of blacks and Hispanics. But Asians also have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York, with 29 percent living below the poverty level, compared with 26 percent of Hispanics, 23 percent of blacks, and 14 percent of whites. Poor Asians lag far behind whites and are barely ahead of blacks and Latinos. Thus, the income spectrum among Asians in New York ranges from a surprisingly large number in poverty, through a hardworking lower middle class, and on to a more affluent upper middle class. Half the students at the specialized high schools qualify for free or subsidized school lunches. federal Title I funding, given to schools with large numbers of low-income students. Think about that: two public high schools that, along with half their students, are officially classified as poor by the federal government rival the most exclusive prep schools in the world.
According to Saffron, that hard work–and meritocracy–to “progressive” elites, “is intolerable.” And since the Hecht-Calandra Law mandates the use of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (“SHSAT”), groups like the NAACP are citing “disparate impact” to try to throw out the importance of the test in favor of a “holistic” system that puts a premium on “backgrounds” and “experiences” and “commitment to community service” and “proven leadership” and portfolio assessments.”
Keep in mind that these subjective assessments will be used to assess 13-year-old children. De Blasio and his liberal allies failed to pass a bill to reform the system this year, but Saffron anticipates that “a renewed push is likely in 2015.” What that will do is tip the scales in favor of privileged New Yorkers:
Such subjective admissions criteria would be likelier to favor the kids of New York’s professional class than children from less affluent backgrounds. But as a past president of the Stuyvesant Parents Association noted, “the kids that have the best résumés in seventh and eighth grades have money.” A Chinese student like Ting Shi who has to help out in his parents’ Laundromat is not going on “service” trips to Nicaragua with the children in de Blasio’s affluent Park Slope neighborhood. The LDF’s suggested admissions criteria–student portfolios, leadership skills, and community service–are all subject to privileged parents’ ability to buy their children the indicia of impressiveness.
Ironically, eliminating the SHSAT would magnify the role of what progressives call “unconscious bias”–the idea that we have a preference for those who look like us and share our backgrounds. Subjective evaluation measures like interviews and portfolio reviews are much more susceptible to such bias than is an objective examination. Evaluators are inherently predisposed toward applicants who mirror their own lifestyles and values–which, for the teachers and edu-crats who would be doing the evaluating under a “holistic” process, are generally those of a professional elite. The upper-middle-class applicant who volunteers at the food co-op or the AIDS walk and who manifests an air of self-confident irony will have a leg up over the quiet immigrant kid who works hard and studies. Sure, the decision makers will do their best to admit a few more black and Latino kids (especially those from the same upper-middle-class backgrounds),
As always in social engineering experiments, “the losers in this top-bottom squeeze will be the lower middle and working classes.” In New York, “that means Asians.” And the winners will be those who live in “de Blasio’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn,” as the numbers Saffron cite reveal:
A comparison of the eight most selective screened schools with the eight specialized schools shows that the screened schools, while more heavily black and Latino, are also considerably whiter and more affluent–and considerably less Asian. Remember that the specialized schools are 13 percent black and Hispanic, 24 percent white, and 60 percent Asian. The top screened schools are 27 percent black and Hispanic, 46 percent white, and only 26 percent Asian. And while 50 percent of the students at the specialized schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, only 37 percent of the students at the top screened schools do.
Saffron notes that these educational reforms are even more radical — and dangerous — than previous proposals that only wanted to suspend the exam until blacks and Latinos had better access to “curricula and instruction that would prepare them for this test.”
“Adopting this cynical approach would do no favors for black and Latino children, while opening the door to discrimination against Asian kids like Ting,” Saffron concludes. “It is not the specialized schools’ emphasis on merit, but rather the advocates’ defeatist worldview that is truly–and tragically–wrongheaded.”