Commentary

Trump vs. De Blasio on Race and School Admissions

Gerard T. Mundy
By Gerard T. Mundy | July 16, 2018 | 3:17 PM EDT

President Donald Trump (left) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (right) (Screenshots)

Among the two dozen letters of guidance that the Trump administration announced two weeks ago it is rescinding were multiple joint Department of Justice and Department of Education guidance letters from previous administrations that urged schools in the country to ensure by varied means racial diversity in classrooms. The Trump administration’s rescindment of the letters of guidance illuminates for others where the executive office stands on the issue of race and admission to educational institutions.

As the federal executive branch makes it clear that it stands for “race-neutral” school admissions, however, the proudly-progressive mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, wages assault on non-race-based school admissions in the city.

The Trump administration’s moves are just. The de Blasio administration’s plans are wrong.

Indeed, in New York, interest groups and school alumni are continuing their forceful protests against Mayor de Blasio’s dual approach to diversify the racial compositions of eight of nine specialized public high schools in the city. The continuing protests against the plans announced in June are pushback against actions emblematic of a harmful identity politics ideology in practice.

As so many non-charter public schools in the city continue to fail academically, de Blasio’s ideology pushes him to endanger the best among the city’s very few academically-rich schools.

De Blasio’s ideological delusion is that only some people, based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds, as well as their prior religious education background, deserve assistance in moving up the socio-economic ladder.

Race should not determine who receives help, as poverty, non-ideal family lives, and distressed communities are not exclusive to any race or ethnicity. Neither should race determine who receives rewards, which the Trump administration showed it recognizes. As one sees generally with identity politics ideology, de Blasio’s plans pit people against each other; here specifically by making school admission about race rather than other factors. 

The first part of de Blasio’s specialized high school racial diversification plan, to begin in the fall of 2019, entails an expansion of the Discovery program, which will set aside 20 percent of seats in eight of the city’s specialized high schools for students coming from high poverty junior high schools. This plan is a backdoor to an automatic 20 percent black and Latino student selection. De Blasio’s changes to the Discovery program, which enrolled  202 students in the specialized high schools last year, means it will no longer accept low-income students from throughout the city, but rather make selections only from high-poverty junior schools where one is sure to find black and Latino students. Five percent of students admitted to the specialized high schools already come from the Discovery program, which gives students who missed the admission exam cutoff, and who are from low-income households, a chance at admission after they attend free summer preparation and meet some other guidelines.

For the second part of the plan, de Blasio is seeking approval from Albany to scrap the admissions test for the specialized schools and rather base admission on junior high school rank and state test scores. His plan calls for phasing out the test over three years and instead taking the top 7 percent of students from each junior high school, reserving 90 to 95 percent of seats for these students. The remaining five to ten percent, to be chosen by lottery, would be reserved for students from religious junior high schools, students new to New York City, and students from the high-poverty junior high schools who did not make the first top-7 percent cut.

Both parts of de Blasio’s specialized schools plan are unjust because they discriminate against certain students, namely those not considered to be black or Latino. The plans also discriminate against students coming from religious junior high schools by setting aside as little as five percent – and most likely far less than that percentage – of seats for these students.

De Blasio is not trying to scrap the admissions test because of a principled opposition to standardized testing, but rather his sole aim is to increase black and Latino enrollment above the potential 20 percent enrollment he can reach with part one of his plan. Finding different student selection models – any model that brings in more black and Latino students and not just one that eliminates the standardized test – brings de Blasio to the end that he seeks. His actions – such as pushing to scrap the admissions test – are simply a means to his end.

De Blasio has made nothing but clear his intention with the changes. Unlike the vast majority of New York City schools, the specialized high schools are not majority black and Latino, and, simply put, de Blasio wants to make them – forcibly – majority black and Latino. These seats are to be taken from Asian and white students who would have earned them. If the second part of his targeted plan were approved, it would satisfy his discriminatory efforts at the high schools, cutting enrollment of white students from 24 percent to 15 percent, Asian students from 62 percent to 20 percent, thereby bringing the schools to a majority black and Latino population, with those groups comprising 46 percent of students.

Black and Latino students comprise 67 percent of New York City public school students but yet only 10 percent of accepted students at the specialized high schools this year came from these groups (and, recall, five percent of students were selected from the Discovery program and the city offers free test preparation to "historically underrepresented groups.").

Asian students are the overwhelming majority at these schools. Asian interest groups and Asian politicians have denounced the plan and have held opposition rallies. All students who gain admission have undeniably worked hard and none of them should be penalized or discriminated against simply because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

De Blasio rather should work toward improving communities and schools that make it difficult for black and Latino students to compete justly with others seeking admission to the city’s specialized high schools (the Latino street gang that murdered an innocent 15-year-old boy this month in the Bronx reportedly recruits members in city schools). The mayor should also consider the academic successes of the city’s Catholic schools and charter schools in an attempt to understand what is wrong with his failing public education system. (Applications to charter schools, the number of which are capped, were at a record high last year, but there are not enough seats to accommodate all students.)

De Blasio’s two racial diversification plans spotlight contemporary social experimenters’ propensity to pull others down unjustly and harmfully. In a failing education system, and in a city and state that spend the most money per student in the country, the city’s most academically advanced students have neither earned nor deserved to be pulled down by ideological social experiments.

Lifting up those only of certain racial or ethnic backgrounds while intentionally ignoring and disenfranchising others is outright discrimination.

Following the Trump Administration’s recent move to rescind prior letters of guidance on race and school admissions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos should take a close look at de Blasio’s plans, for they are an unfortunate case study of active discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and religion. Taxpayer-funded schools should not disenfranchise individuals based on the experimental social initiatives of the moment.

Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and teaches philosophy, as a political philosophy/political theory specialist, at a private college in New York.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated since its original publishing date and includes new hyperlinks.

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