Active: Federal lawsuit challenges racial discrimination in school grant program

In 1985, New York lawmakers passed legislation aimed at fostering interest in science, technology, and healthcare among low-income and underrepresented minority students.

The outcome was the establishment of the New York State Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), a statute channeling public funds to 56 colleges, universities, and medical schools statewide. These institutions host and operate STEP initiatives for 7th-to-12th-grade students that include instruction, exam preparation, hands-on and research training, college admissions guidance, and career-focused activities such as field trips and college visits.

Under STEP, students are eligible if they either are economically disadvantaged or belong to a minority group historically underrepresented in the targeted fields. STEP regulations explicitly define underrepresented minorities as only black, Hispanic, Native American, or Alaskan Native.

A child of billionaires, for example, who happens to identify as black, is eligible for STEP. A Chinese American student whose parents barely top the poverty line, however, is categorically ineligible.

New York City mother Yiatin Chu immigrated to America as a young child. Her parents believed that education was a powerful tool for success, and they wanted to give their three daughters opportunities that were only available to them in the United States.

Yiatin worked hard to keep up with her studies while also learning English. Eventually, she tested into The Bronx High School of Science, one of New York City’s Specialized High Schools. She later went on to attend Binghamton University, part of the University of New York system,  where she took out loans and worked to pay her way through college.

Now a parent herself, Yiatin wants to make sure her younger daughter has the same access to opportunity that allowed her to achieve her own American Dream. But thanks to the STEP requirements, Yiatin’s daughter will miss out on the valuable college prep program because of her race.

If the government wants to fund educational opportunities for children in need, it can do so. What it can’t do is use economic need as a way to treat applicants differently based on their race. STEP’s expressly race-conscious application process blatantly violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

Now, Yiatin and other parents are fighting back. Joined by the New York City-based parent groups the Chinese American Citizens of Greater New York (CACAGNY), the Inclusive Education Advocacy Group, and Higher with Our Parent Engagement (HOPE), Yiatin has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the racially discriminatory provisions of the STEP statute.

“I’m not asking us to be treated differently,” Yiatin 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.”

The parents are represented at no charge by Pacific Legal Foundation and the Legal Insurrection Foundation.

What’s At Stake?

  • The government cannot deny educational opportunities to children based on their race. Government programs that assign benefits or burdens based on a student’s race violate the constitutional promise of equality before the law.

Case Timeline

April 05, 2024
First Amended Complaint
Northern District of New York