Since the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants have come to the United States to obtain better futures for their children. These immigrants often worked long hours in grueling jobs. But they believed their children could have better lives in a country that grants opportunities based on merit and hard work, rather than on who you know.
They would be shocked to see what’s happening in New York today, where hard-working students from Asian families in impoverished middle schools have been denied educational opportunities in the name of racial balancing.
New York’s nine “specialized high schools” are some of the most prestigious secondary schools in the United States. Among the schools are Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech — schools renowned for providing students with a path to better opportunities. The schools have produced Nobel laureates and leaders in several fields.
To secure those opportunities for their children, hard-working parents across New York City, many of them poor or working class, pour time and resources into getting their sons and daughters admitted to these schools. The students study earnestly for a specialized test that is the primary determinant of admission to these schools.
But Mayor Bill de Blasio is unhappy with that merit-based admissions system. Why? Because it apparently has resulted in the “wrong” sort of people gaining admission to the specialized high schools. The mayor repeatedly has expressed his disappointment at the racial make-up of specialized schools, and in 2018, proposed to alter the admissions process in an attempt to reflect his preferred racial balance.
There’s a major problem with de Blasio’s proposal: The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has struck down laws that openly discriminate on the basis of race. Unfazed, de Blasio concocted a scheme to accomplish his goal of racial balance in a covert way.
He did so by altering the Discovery Program, an alternative program originally intended to help underprivileged students, who score just below the cut-off, compete for placement in the specialized schools.
De Blasio changed the admissions standards so that a fifth of the seats at New York’s most renowned specialized high schools would be off-limits to students from middle schools such as Christa McAuliffe Intermediate School, which serves a large number of poor, Asian students.
Christa McAuliffe sent more students to specialized high schools than any other school in New York before the city revamped its admissions process in 2018. Out of the 274 eighth-graders who graduated that year, 205 went on to attend a specialized high school, despite the fact that about two-thirds of those students were poor.
Yet de Blasio changed a program intended to help underprivileged students at McAuliffe into one that hurts Asian students at the school. Going forward, students from McAuliffe cannot compete for 20 percent of the seats at specialized high schools, which creates a roadblock between the low-income Asian students at the school and the education opportunities that promise a better tomorrow.
The students at Christa McAuliffe represent the best of this nation: Hard-working, dedicated children who rose above their socioeconomic circumstances to gain admission into some of the best high schools in the country. Yet, apparently these students were a threat to de Blasio’s goal to achieve his favored racial balance in the specialized schools. Such race-obsession isn’t just morally offensive — it also threatens to deprive numerous students of the educational opportunities they earned.
Fortunately, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises individuals equal protection under the laws. Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a nonprofit organization with 12 wins before the Supreme Court, has fought to vindicate that guarantee in courts across the country and is representing Asian families free of charge in their court fight against de Blasio’s unconstitutional attempt to limit their children’s opportunities to attend the best schools in New York. (PLF recently produced a short film, “Dream Factories,” that details the controversy and the court challenge.)
Racial discrimination is wrong, regardless of whether it is overt or covert. Parents and students alike dream of a better future. Their race should not be a barrier to fulfilling those dreams — which is why we need to challenge those who seek to deny students their right to a quality education based on the color of their skin.
This op-ed was originally published by The Hill on October 21, 2020.