Sweeping Suit Over NYC Schools Bias Calls to Disband ‘Gifted & Talented’ Programs

Fighting to open up New York City’s most elite public academic programs, a group of students and civil rights attorneys paint the existing admissions system as a monument to structural racism.

A 2019 report quoting New York City school demographics shows that races are not represented equally in “gifted and talented” kindergarten programs. Black and Latino students are underrepresented as compared with Asian and white students. (Image via Courthouse News)

MANHATTAN (CN) — In a city as diverse as New York, home to the country’s largest public-school system, a lawsuit filed Tuesday says students are among “the most segregated in the country.”

“Indeed, if government’s goal were to create a system of education that would replicate and in fact exacerbate pernicious racial inequality in the city, it would be challenging to design a more effective system than that which currently exists,” the sprawling 77-page complaint declares.

The suit takes aim at how the New York City public school system tracks and tests students for admissions into its highly selective “Gifted and Talented” programs — the makeup of which are predominantly white or Asian.

Alleging that the result is a “caste structure” of racial and socioeconomic segregation, the complaint brought this morning in Manhattan Supreme Court fires off a series of startling statistics.

Only 15% of city students are white, but over 34% of white students attended schools with majority white populations in the 2018–19 academic year. Meanwhile some 75% of Black and Latino students attended schools with fewer than 10% white students.

The lawsuit is led by 13 anonymous students and the group IntegrateNYC, represented by Sidley Austin, the Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, and a coalition of civil rights lawyers from across the county.

Taking aim at the state, Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others, they say New York officials have committed to test-based sorting that they know excludes Black and Hispanic students from equal educational opportunities. These same structures meanwhile serve to gatekeep advantages for white and Asian students, who benefit from “a pipeline that affords them superior educational opportunities as they advance through the system,” according to the complaint.

In disproportionately relegating Black and Latino students to neglected schools and inferior educational opportunities, according to the complaint, students suffer violations of New York State Human Rights Law as well as Article XI, section 1, of the New York Constitution.

The three-count suit calls for the elimination the city’s Gifted & Talented programs and screening processes for middle and high schools. Other injunctive relief sought by the students includes the adoption of evidence-based programs to improve recruitment and retention of faculty of color. 

Mayor de Blasio declined to make specific comments in response to the lawsuit during a morning press conference on Tuesday, but affirmed to reporters that he believes “what is happening with specialized high schools admissions is wrong.” 

“I’ve made that abundantly clear,” he said. “I fought intensely to change it in Albany. We weren’t able to achieve it. I am certain that that will be resolved in the future, because it’s just wrong.” 

“The status quo is broken,” he added. 

In August 2019, the de Blasio-commissioned School Diversity Advisory Group released a 40-page report that called New York City’s schools “as segregated as the schools of Mississippi and Alabama,” thanks to test-prep programs that cater to its wealthiest ranks.

Screenshot from New York City press conference on Dec. 18, 2020, showing Mayor Bill de Blasio about school-desegregation efforts. (Image via Courthouse News)

In striking bar graphs of the city’s own data, the report showed that white and Asian students had a nearly even split on offers to New York City’s gifted and talented programs in the 2017–18 school year. Just 10% of Latino and 8% of Black kindergarteners received the same offers.

The report called for a moratorium on new gifted programs in city schools, saying the city should focus instead on nonselective magnet schools “based on student needs and interests” across the city. 

One year later, de Blasio announced that the city would suspend the merit-based screening process that guided admissions to the city’s most selective middle schools and instead use a lottery system for at least a year. 

This move was quickly followed by the resignation of New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.

Meisha Porter, formerly executive superintendent for the Bronx, took over the post this month. It is the first time a Black woman has been appointed New York City Schools chancellor. 

Named among the defendants to Tuesday’s lawsuit, Porter did not respond to a request for comment, nor did any representatives for the governor’s office, the state’s Education Department, and New York City Public Schools. 

Some of the prominent civil rights attorneys to sign on to the suit are Ben Crump; Eamon Joyce and Melissa Colón-Bosolet from the Washington firm Sidley Austin; and former Michigan Law School dean Evan Caminker. 

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