Opposition abounds against specialized high school admissions changes at Senate forum in Queens

When lawmakers announced a series of community forums about specialized high school admissions, state Sen. John Liu said the goal was to “hear every single voice” on the divisive issue.

But at the first of those forums Thursday night in Queens, those voices nearly all said the same thing: overhauling admissions in the name of diversifying the schools would harm the Asian community.

Inside Queens borough hall, members of the state Senate Committee on New York City Education listened to more than three hours of testimony, almost entirely from those who believe that the single test currently used to determine admissions should remain in place.

Many argued the test is an unbiased measure and called admissions changes discriminatory against Asian students, who make up the majority of enrollment at the specialized high schools — despite making just 16 percent of public school enrollment citywide. Instead, some speakers  called for more gifted and talented in black and Hispanic communities to better prepare a more diverse crop of students for admission to the schools, and for more specialized high schools to be built.

“It’s not the test itself. It’s the effort. It’s how much resources we put into our schools,” said Michelle Zheng, the mother of a sixth-grader in Bayside, Queens. “Consider, how can we improve our school system by putting more resources in early education?”

Beforehand, parents waved signs declaring “Keep SHSAT,” referring to the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. They chanted “No quotas!”

Amanda Vender, the mother of a sixth grader at I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights, was one of just a few who advocated for admissions changes, praising the education her son is receiving at a school that serves almost entirely Hispanic students.

“The problem is racism, that breeds segregation,” she said. “We cannot stand for continued segregation.”

While some in the Asian community have echoed the need for reform, many others were outraged when Mayor Bill de Blasio called last summer for the elimination of the single test that determines admission to the coveted schools — a proposal which requires the legislature to act since the exam is ingrained in state law.

Liu has declared an admissions overhaul as a political non-starter — describing de Blasio’s plan as “racist” — because the mayor did not consult with the Asian community before rolling out his proposal. Still, the forums are significant because de Blasio’s plan hinges on getting approval from lawmakers in Albany, including the senators who were present Thursday night. Speaker Carl Heastie said the Assembly plans to hold hearings in May.  

Thursday’s hearing was just the first of a series slated for each borough, announced after the latest round of admissions data showed just seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant, the most competitive of the specialized high schools. The group of Democratic senators who called for the forums are on different sides of the issue but agreed there needed to be a venue for the public to express their varied views. 

But in the end, the sentiments raised Thursday weren’t much different from the opposition to de Blasio’s plan voiced at meetings that the education department held in districts throughout the city, with many of the same community organizations and specialized high schools alumni groups rallying their supporters.

Many argued the city’s proposed admissions changes have pitted communities against each other.

“There is so much vilification of Asian parents who are fighting to help their children,” said Jo Ann Yoo, the executive Director of the Asian American Federation. “We must give all of our kids access to the best education possible.”