Carranza in the hot seat during Assembly’s specialized high school hearing

State lawmakers came down on all sides of the fiery specialized high school debate during a public hearing Friday, but several agreed on one point: they were disappointed with how the mayor’s proposal to diversify the schools was rolled out.

“The rollout was awful, and I think every single one of us have said that rollout was awful,” said Brooklyn Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, who supports getting rid of the test, during the hearing hosted by the Assembly’s education committee.

The questions and criticism came during the state’s first formal public hearing in New York City over how students are admitted to the eight elite high schools, an issue lawmakers have effectively punted on addressing in the year since Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed scrapping the entrance exam and instead admitting the top 7% of students at each middle school to increase diversity.

While it’s been argued that the city can immediately change admissions at five of the eight specialized high schools, state legislators must change state law to alter admissions at the rest, which enroll about 80% of specialized high school students. Friday’s hearing and a set of Senate community forums were arranged after new admissions data showed that the schools remain starkly segregated. But in the end, while the hearing was the latest of numerous opportunities to share opinions, the conversation was largely the same without any apparent consensus.

Chancellor Richard Carranza, who testified at the hearing and fiercely defended the mayor’s plan, fielded questions from Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim and Manhattan Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright about how the proposal was rolled out, echoing concerns that the community and Asian-American families in particular weren’t consulted. Much of the opposition comes from within the Asian-American community. While Asian-Americans make up about 16% of all city students, 51% of offers went to those students this year. In contrast, just about 10% of offers went to black and Hispanic students, who make up about 70% of all students.

Carranza noted that both he and the mayor have acknowledged that the plan’s presentation could have been better, but also pointed to visits to each parent council where officials took questions on the plan.

“Every conversation starts with a proposal, and we put forward a proposal,” Carranza said.

Friday’s hourslong hearing — led by testimony from community members, alumni from specialized schools, city officials, researchers, and some students — also continued to underscore how divided communities are over the issue and just how complicated a resolution would be. Protestors who want to keep the admissions exam later filed into the meeting, donning blue “Save the SHSAT” T-shirts.

Members of the Assembly’s education committee tried to zero in on different arguments around the elite schools. Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte shared a personal story to say that a single test is not a good option. Brooklyn Assemblyman William Colton asked Carranza whether expanding gifted and talented programs would boost diversity at specialized high schools (Carranza said not in their current format because those programs are segregated themselves).

Others raised questions about creating more specialized high school slots and improving elementary and middle school rigor, some familiar ideas from those who oppose scrapping the exam. Brooklyn Assemblywoman Latrice Walker asked Carranza why the city won’t change admissions to the five schools not addressed in state law; Carranza said they don’t want to “make an imperfect law a little less imperfect” and that leaders at specialized high schools oppose splitting up admissions standards among them.

Some speakers addressed a misconception that most Asian-Americans oppose the mayor’s plan, noting that it’s a diverse racial group with many who support phasing out the exam. Carranza noted that he’s not trying to attack the Asian community, but work for “all of our students.”  

And as Politico reported this week, there are also clear divides among black city leaders. In a heated exchange Friday, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Brooklyn Assemblyman Charles Barron, who has sponsored the state bill that would remove the exam from state law, sparred and talked over each other about whether grades are a good indicator of future success (some research has found, at least for students who scored near the entrance exam cutoff, they are).

Williams, who went to Brooklyn Tech, wants the city to preserve the test and add other admissions standards. But he also said the city’s plan is a “red herring” potentially motivated by politics because it’s ignoring screened admissions to other non-specialized high schools, such as Eleanor Roosevelt High School.

Barron disagreed, bringing up the background of the state law that created the admissions system to begin with. “Stick to the point: that test was born out of racism and it is achieving its objective, and that is to keep us out of the specialized high schools,” Barron said to Williams.

It’s not clear whether the law will even be addressed this session, which ends in June.