A mother’s fight to end discrimination and protect merit-based public education

March 06, 2024 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Yiatin Chu in NYC

A student’s race should not determine their access to public educational programs. The Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause specifically safeguards against this kind of discrimination. Yet, this is exactly what is happening in New York State’s Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP).

Originally intended to help students prepare for college, the program is open to any student who is black, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaskan Native. Anyone else must meet strict income eligibility thresholds. As a result, many students are missing out on opportunities because their race is deemed less deserving than others.

This isn’t sitting well with one New York City mother, who is fighting back.

The power of education

Yiatin Chu is a strong believer in the power of education.

As a young child in the late 1960s, Yiatin’s family immigrated to America. The American Dream meant something to her parents. Unlike other immigrants who came to this country because of political turmoil or financial instability in their home countries, Yiatin’s parents had successful careers and a comfortable life surrounded by great friends. But her parents wanted their three daughters to have the kind of opportunities that were available to them only in the United States.

The family moved into a small studio apartment in the Manhattan neighborhood of Murray Hill, where they instilled in their daughters the belief that education was the roadmap to success.

Yiatin’s parents always pushed their daughters to excel in school. She worked hard on her studies while also learning an entirely new language. It was tough, but she credits one of her teachers in particular for helping her build her vocabulary. She also came to love the English language, especially mystery books, which she devoured as quickly as she could get her hands on them.

Her parents were also working hard, learning to speak English while simultaneously looking for jobs. Even though both were well-educated, they found themselves having to consider janitorial or clerical positions. As Yiatin remarks, “But that’s what immigrants do.”

Her father found work in a factory running machines and her mom worked as a clerical person for a Wall Street finance firm. In just a few years, they were able to buy a home in Queens. All in all, Yiatin says she had a typical American upbringing. Eventually, she tested into a Specialized High School, The Bronx High School of Science.

After high school, Yiatin attended the University of New York at Binghamton, taking out loans and working to support herself. After her education was complete, she started her career, got married, and had her first daughter.

A working mother

Life was busy, and Yiatin didn’t have the time to be the kind of mother who attended every PTA meeting. Like most parents, she was living her life and caring for her family.

“I was working. PTA needs something, I wrote a check,” she says. “I didn’t have time to volunteer, I was not involved. I didn’t read politics, didn’t read school, didn’t even volunteer for bake sales. I did nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.”

She and her husband grew apart and eventually went their separate ways. Yiatin remarried and she and her second husband welcomed their second daughter into the world when her oldest daughter was 13.

At this point in her life, she had more time to spend at home raising her daughters, which is when she began paying more attention. Her second daughter was attending what some might call a progressive school, where homework isn’t allowed and children aren’t pushed too hard academically. This wasn’t the right fit for Yiatin’s daughter, who was often bored and unchallenged. Yiatin began to look for other options.

Private schools in Manhattan are exorbitantly expense and were off the table, but in her search, Yiatin happened to find a dual-language Mandarin school on the Lower East Side, far away from the Upper West Side. Not only was the curriculum more challenging, but her daughter would have the opportunity to learn Mandarin. The school was quite the trek from their home, but the family fell in love with the school.

Sending her daughter to the new school would turn out to be the catalyst for Yiatin’s advocacy for individual merit. She began volunteering at the school, where she connected with other parents, many of whom were Chinese immigrants.

Yiatin had mentioned to the other parents that she had attended Bronx Science, and they informed her that the Specialized High Schools in the city were now under attack. Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced his intentions to phase out merit-based, race-blind entrance exams for the Specialized High Schools in an attempt to engineer a racially diverse student body in the name of equity. These policies not only went against the principle of equality before the law, they also disproportionately harm Asian American students.

In 2018, Pacific Legal Foundation joined the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY) to fight back in court. We are still awaiting the decision from the Second Circuit Court.

This was a turning point for Yiatin. In March 2019, she was asked by a parent-run grassroots organization to deliver testimony at a mayoral hearing. Because she spoke fluent English, she was a huge asset to the cause. Shortly thereafter, she took a stand against the mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group when they furthered the city’s attack on merit, after the group recommended that gifted and talented programs be eliminated.

She had seen firsthand how merit-based education helped students from all backgrounds access opportunities that set them up for success. She herself had been able to attend Bronx Science and she wanted her daughters to have those same opportunities. With New York’s constant attacks on individual merit, she feared those opportunities would soon be gone for good.

In the midst of the chaos in New York came the joint Supreme Court cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. UNC.

Plunged into the spotlight

On a muggy DC summer’s day in 2023, the Supreme Court delivered its joint decision in the Harvard and UNC cases, where Asian American students challenged the schools’ affirmative action admissions policies as racially discriminatory. Just as with NYC’s Specialized High Schools, these policies disproportionately impacted Asian applicants—a fact even major college prep organizations acknowledged.

In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education on the basis that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equality before the law.

This was a major milestone in the fight for equality in public education. Thrilled by the decision, Yiatin tweeted: “I told my daughter that today is a big day. They’ve ended affirmative action. ‘Isn’t it what you’ve been fighting for?’ she asked. I said yes.”

Chaos ensued.

Yiatin found herself the target of criticism accusing her of “carrying the water” of white supremacy by media figures, including Star Trek actor George Takei.

She responded to her critics, saying, “To paint the merit of the case as something that is standing up for white supremacy or against any particular group of people is, I think, a very misguided view of the intent of what I wanted and what I think most people want when they say we want an end to affirmative action.”

“This is not to try to denigrate some other groups of people. It’s really about fighting for our equal rights to be treated no better.”

The online hate might have scared others into silence, but not Yiatin.

The woman who once described herself as quiet and politically uninterested now says, “You either just stop doing it and hide or be canceled or just keep on talking.”

Just a few months after the Harvard ruling, her fight to protect equality in education would continue in her lawsuit against the State of New York‘s discriminatory STEP.

The next front in the fight for equality in education

New York’s STEP initiatives have strayed from their original purpose. The program is supposed to offer resources to 7th-to-12th-grade students, like instruction, exam preparation, hands-on and research training, college admissions guidance, and career-focused activities such as field trips and college visits.

To be eligible for STEP, students must either be economically disadvantaged or belong to a minority group historically underrepresented in STEM. But the STEP architects determine what “minority” means. Under their guidelines, a student qualifies as an underrepresented minority only if they are black, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaskan Native.

This means that a child of billionaires who happens to identify as black is eligible for the STEP program. But a Chinese American student whose parents barely top the poverty line is not.

If a state decides to implement programs like STEP, it can, but it must adhere to the Constitution’s promise of equality before the law. Setting socio-economic limits is one thing, but it cannot use economic need to treat applicants differently based on their race. Adding a racial layer to the eligibility requirements shows a blatant disregard for the Fourteenth Amendment.

For Yiatin, these requirements mean that her daughter will miss out on college prep opportunities. She has taught her daughters her entire life that merit and education will help them get ahead, only to have the State of New York hold them back from these opportunities because of their race.

Pacific Legal Foundation is helping Yiatin fight back against New York’s discriminatory law and protect equality before the law.

Yiatin is fighting for equality, pure and simple.

“I’m not asking us to be treated differently,” she says. “Just don’t treat us any different than you would treat a black student, Hispanic student, or a white student. That’s all I want, no favors, no priority, just to be treated equal.”