As controversy over the SHSAT heats up, lawmakers call for forums to ‘hear every single voice’

The fallout from the recent release of enrollment data for the city’s specialized high schools continued Thursday, as New York City state senators announced they’ll hold community forums to discuss the issue – signaling more interest than state lawmakers have likely ever taken publicly in the matter.

Thursday’s announcement comes two days after Speaker Carl Heastie said the Assembly plans to hold hearings in May on admissions at the eight elite schools, on the heels of new data showing they remain starkly racially segregated.

The statistics showed that yet again, a little more than 10 percent of offers to specialized high schools went to black and Hispanic students, with just seven black students receiving offers to coveted Stuyvesant High School. The numbers reignited the debate over whether the use of a single entrance exam leads to the disparities, an argument at the heart of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial plan to overhaul the admissions process.

The outrage prompted the group of Democratic senators — Sen. John Liu, Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, Sen. Kevin Parker, and Sen. Jessica Ramos — to come together and ask for forums despite their differing opinions on the issue. Liu, for example, has called the mayor’s plan “deeply flawed,” while Parker has sponsored bills to get rid of the exam.

“It is our goal to hear every single voice on this issue,” Liu, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate’s New York City education committee, said. “The voices are varied. They range a wide gamut of different opinions and positions, as well as solutions and suggestions. We want to hear all of that.”

The flurry of activity is sudden — until this week there was little to no movement in Albany on the issue, and the mayor planned to focus entirely on retaining mayoral control of city schools. City education officials have attended district meetings across the city – some of which have become tense — to explain and take questions about the mayor’s plan.

Sen. Parker acknowledged how many years this conversation dates back, without consensus. These forums, he said, are different because he believed this was the first time any legislative body has taken this “head on.”

“There’s been articles and people talking about it, but in terms of working through a process that gets us to some viable options, that has not happened,” Parker said. “And so we think that we’re doing the responsible thing, taking it up, developing a process, giving some transparency about we think the process is, letting you know that we’re open minded.”

Dates for the forums — at least one in each borough — haven’t been finalized but will start in April, said Liu, who emphasized that they will also focus on school diversity in general. It’s also unclear when Heastie’s hearing will be scheduled.

Liu said legislators “won’t drag” their “feet forever,” but it’s unclear when they would propose any change to the law governing admissions at the schools.

Asian families in particular have spoken out against de Blasio’s plan to diversify these schools, which is to scrap the admissions exam and instead admit the top 7 percent of students at each middle school, and expand a program that offers seats to high-needs students who score just below the cutoff score on the exam. These critics say the exam is an objective measure, and that the academic rigor of the schools shouldn’t be tamped down. Asian-American students make up about 17 percent of students citywide but received a majority of offers to the elite schools this year..

These community forums should have happened a long time ago, said Phillip Yan Hing Wong, a parent who, with others, has sued the city over one part of its diversity plan for specialized high schools. But Wong plans to attend.

“Unfortunately this SHSAT so-called reform was introduced without any input, without any hearing,” Wong said after the press conference.

Earlier Thursday, right across the street on the steps of City Hall, Assemblyman Charles Barron was joined by elected officials and advocates who all called to get rid of the exam as the sole criteria for admissions, saying it gives an advantage to students whose families can afford test prep. Barron, who has introduced legislation to get rid of the exam, called the recent statistics “unconscionable and totally unacceptable.”

“For those who say the solution is to do better in junior high schools and public schools, we agree 1000 percent,” Barron said. “But let’s not be confused. The students that didn’t make the score are prepared to pass in Stuyvesant right now.”

While state lawmakers must amend the law to get rid of the test, even that process for doing so has been debated. On Wednesday, Cuomo said the city should change admissions standards for five of the specialized high schools which aren’t written into the state law mandating the use of a single entrance exam. But de Blasio has said they want to change admissions standards for all schools at once.

At Barron’s rally, an alumna of Brooklyn Tech who identifies as Indo-Caribbean said the diversity within the Asian racial group is being “left out of the conversation.”

“There are many other Asian subgroups that this test excludes as well,” said Alana Mohamed. “The divide is not black and white as some would have you believe, and it is a slap in the face to imply that racial antagonism started desegregation efforts.”