The white population at Stuyvesant hovered around 40 percent from the late 1980s until the early 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Around 2003, when Bloomberg became mayor, the number of white kids at these schools dropped as the number of schools that screen for academic criteria like grades or exams, or require an audition or interview, more than doubled.** This selectivity increased the pool of schools that were considered “good,” which diverted many white students away from the specialized schools and into these newly prestigious schools.
Whatever the merits of de Blasio’s proposal, it would have a limited effect on the system-wide problem of school inequity he’s interested in fixing, as specialized high schools only account for about 6 percent of seats in the city’s public high schools. (It may, however, have a larger impact on diversifying the city’s middle schools, in that it could incentivize parents to choose “worse” schools for their kids, where those kids might have a better shot at finishing at the top of their class and thus gain entry to a specialized high school.)
What, then, would make a difference in high schools more broadly? There are other schools in the city—about a third of public high-school programs, in fact—that screen incoming students and that also don’t reflect the city’s wider demographic. These “screened” schools—which are basically lesser-known, but still competitive, magnet schools—generally have more black and Latino students than the specialized schools, but they still tend to be predominantly white and Asian.
Overhauling these screened schools would have a bigger impact than doing away with the SHSAT. As Stuyvesant demonstrates, having a student body that is racially and economically diverse can mean that everyone wins: Poor and minority kids do better academically, and top-performing white kids do just as well, while getting the enrichment of being around a wider variety of peers. In other words, what needs fixing is the system more broadly.
Indeed, dozens of school systems around the country are considering students’ household income when assigning them to schools. To get rid of the SHSAT, de Blasio would have to win a change in state law, but he could easily reform screened schools on a large scale in a way that wouldn’t require such a change—just the resolve to stand up to the richer, typically white parents of kids in popular screened schools. Perhaps his proposal represents a recognition that it’s easier to fight state lawmakers and immigrant Asian parents than to fight rich white parents.
*Because of errors in the data kept by the National Council of Education Statistics, this article originally stated that black and Latino students made up 16 percent and 67 percent of the student bodies at Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, respectively, in the 1989-1990 school year. This article, including its charts, has been updated to reflect corrected data from the NCES. A separate error in the chart for Bronx Science, in which the wrong percentage of Asian students was given for the 1989-90 school year, has also been corrected.
**Because of errors in the data kept by the National Council of Education Statistics, this article originally stated that the white population at Stuyvesant peaked in the 1989-1990 school year at 63 percent, and that the number of white students shrunk significantly in the early to mid-’90s. This article, including its charts, has been updated to account for those errors in the data set.
We regret the errors.