De Blasio’s attempt to reduce the number of Asian-American students in the Discovery Program is unconstitutional

December 15, 2018 | By CHRIS KIESER

Originally published by the Daily News, December 15, 2018.

New York City’s specialized high schools are the envy of the nation. Schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech provide a world-class public education for about 12,000 children throughout the city each year, many of whom are economically disadvantaged.

For parents who cannot afford to send their children to private school, the specialized high schools are their only option for a top-flight secondary education. These parents often work long hours to give their children the best possible opportunity for a coveted seat in these desirable schools.

Unlike many private schools, the specialized high schools don’t care about your family’s income, race or whether you attended a prestigious middle school. They admit students based on an objective exam, the Specialized High School Admission Test. Every eighth grader in New York City can sign up for the SHSAT and, with a high enough score, attend one of the city’s best schools. It’s a purely meritocratic approach to admissions.

Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza believe that this fair and transparent approach has led to too many Asian-American students in the specialized high schools. Carranza even tacitly accused Asian-Americans families of believing they “own” admissions to the schools, while de Blasio called the racial composition of the specialized high schools a “monumental injustice.” According to their twisted logic, Asian-American students and families should be punished for their earned success.

But state law prohibits de Blasio and Carranza from scrapping the exam requirement. So while they wait on legislative changes, they have turned their attention to the Discovery Program, a summer program to help low-income children gain admission to the schools.

Discovery is open to rising freshmen who scored just below the SHSAT cutoff for admission and who are certified as economically disadvantaged. Students who complete the program gain admission to the high school that fall. Discovery has traditionally accounted for less than 5% of the total number of students admitted to the specialized high schools.

Sounds like a great idea, right? But de Blasio and Carranza are concerned that too many low-income Asian-American students have been qualifying for admission through the Discovery Program. In the past two years, about two-thirds of participants in the program have been Asian-American.

To address this “injustice,” de Blasio and Carranza decided to limit the program to certain middle schools that score 60% or higher on the city’s “Economic Need Index,” a measure that estimates the percentage of economically disadvantaged students attending a particular school. Then they expanded Discovery to 20% of the seats at each specialized high school, effectively locking the ineligible schools out of a large portion of available spots.

The effect of this bureaucratic sleight-of-hand is to reduce opportunities for Asian-American students in the specialized high schools. Take the Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School, for example, one of the top performing middle schools in New York City. Located in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, more than two-thirds of the 873 middle schoolers at Christa McAuliffe are Asian-American. Although most McAuliffe students are low-income, it scores exceptionally well on state examinations and sent more than 200 students to the specialized high schools in 2018.

But city officials calculated the school’s Economic Need Index as just 57.9%, rendering its students ineligible for the new Discovery Program. No matter how hard they work, Christa McAuliffe students cannot compete for a full one-fifth of the seats at the specialized high schools.

It is not just McAuliffe. As a result of de Blasio and Carranza’s tinkering, students at nearly half of the city’s majority Asian-American middle schools are now ineligible for the Discovery Program. So are a great majority of the middle schools that have sent the most students to the specialized high schools in the past — most of which have high Asian-American student populations.

The result: De Blasio and Carranza have transformed the Discovery Program from one intended to help poor students of all races into a weapon they can wield to discriminate against Asian-American parents and students.

This plan is not only misguided, it is unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from enacting policies with the intent to discriminate against a disfavored race. With their plan to alter the Discovery Program, de Blasio and Carranza have done just that — which is why the Parent Teacher Organization at Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School has filed a federal lawsuit to stop the mayor’s meddling.

Discovery should remain a pathway for economically disadvantaged students of all races to enter the specialized high schools. Government officials should not use race or ethnic background to decide who gets to attend the city’s best schools.

Kieser is an attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates nationwide to achieve court victories enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty.