De Blasio’s specialized school proposal spurs outrage in Asian communities

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to enroll more black and Hispanic students at the city’s elite specialized high schools has fueled backlash from those who argue the schools already serve students of color: Asian students.

The debate exploded into public view after the mayor announced over the weekend that he is committed to boosting the number of black and Hispanic students admitted to eight prestigious New York City high schools, in part by pushing to scrap the one high-stakes test that determines admission.

But that proposal has generated intense pushback from lawmakers and Asian-American groups, who rallied for the second consecutive day Tuesday. They argue the mayor’s plan will unfairly reduce the share of seats earned by Asian students, who currently make up 62 percent of students at the city’s most prestigious high schools — and often invest heavily in test preparation.

While the mayor and his new schools chancellor have earned some praise for their plan to boost diversity at the city’s elite high schools, it’s also clear they will have to grapple with the perception that the proposal has turned racial and ethnic groups against each other as they vie for limited seats at the city’s top high schools.

“What’s so frustrating about the mayor and City Hall’s narrative is that it seems to, at best, deny that Asian Americans are people of color too,” said Ron Kim, a state assemblyman who represents constituents in Flushing, Queens.

On Tuesday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stepped into the debate, making the case that offering only 10 percent of seats at the city’s top high schools to black and Hispanic students — despite being two-thirds of the overall student population — is not acceptable.

“I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” Carranza said when asked during a television interview Tuesday if he was pitting “minority against minority.” “Either we believe the kids — black kids and brown kids — can’t compete, or there’s something wrong with the system that’s not casting a wide enough net.”

At a spirited protest outside held by critics of the proposal at City Hall hours later, some Asian American parents argued that they, too, are often immigrants or from low-income communities.

Several mothers spoke of foregoing simple pleasures — getting manicures or their hair done — so they could afford after-school programs and test preparation for the Specialized High School Admissions Test. The parents talked about their children studying for years in elementary and middle school, including preparation to ace the exam and earn a coveted spot at an elite school.

Now, the parents feel like those sacrifices are being overlooked by those who now say the test is unfair. Violet Ding, who has a son at Brooklyn Technical High School and is a first-generation Chinese immigrant, got emotional talking about how she packed sandwiches to take to work every day in part so she had money to help prepare her child.

“I came here with nothing and was willing to work hard,” Ding said. “There’s nothing wrong with increasing equity, but we don’t count just because my kid is Asian?”

The mayor and schools chancellor have argued parents shouldn’t be forced to spend that money to have a shot at these schools. And years of efforts to expand free test prep programs and expand access to the test in underrepresented schools have not increased the share of black and Hispanic students.

“We are systematically excluding students in the most diverse city in the world from opportunities, in this particular case in specialized schools,” Carranza said. “I think we have a moral obligation, and I’m very concerned about those in the community that want to pit groups against each other.”

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.