The Great Unequalizer
by Camille Shen
At its creation, the New York Specialized High School System presented an avenue of opportunity for those without wealth, privilege, or a family name. In an effort to value pure merit rather than background, eight magnet schools offer a world-class education, free of charge, to the city’s brightest students: those who earn a high score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT. For years, the children of impoverished Jewish families dominated these schools, which still remain racially homogeneous today – though now, an influx of Asian-American immigrants have taken their place, while admissions for other minority groups have only abated. Due to rising investments into the New York educational system, one side sees black and Latino students as systematically disadvantaged, while the other side believes that low-income Asian students gain admission through rigorous preparation; to rectify this issue, New York City ought to increase funding for middle schools in impoverished areas to narrow the preparation disparity and invest in the academic potential of low-income minority students.
Emboldened by the injustice of racial inequity, one side believes the current educational system inherently stymies the academic endeavors of black and Latino students. Many of these students find themselves ill-equipped to perform well on the SHSAT and thus comprise just slivers of specialized schools’ populations. In fact, Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times finds that though this demographic “make[s] up nearly 70% of New York City’s public school system as a whole”, they accounted for a mere “10% of students admitted into... specialized high schools”, with Stuyvesant, one specialized city school, “offer[ing] just seven out of 895 slots...to black students”. The chilling reality of this disparity lies not with the academic incapabilities of black and Latino students, but rather, with the public school system that fails to prepare them in the first place. In desperate need of proper funding, such schools simply do not possess the teachers, resources, or capacity to prepare students for the advanced concepts encompassed by the SHSAT. Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic expounds the direct correlation between low-income schools and a lack of educational opportunities, noting that “poorer communities...have less local resources...and a harder time attracting the best teachers”, leading to an overall deficit in “both economic and social capital resources” for their students. Given that nearly all black and Latino students in New York City attend these majority low-income schools, those already crippled by poverty find that they must also hurdle the numerous educational barriers strewn on their pathways to upward social mobility. The black and Latino students locked out of these prestigious institutions remain relegated to a perpetual cycle of generational poverty that stems from inadequate education. Lacking a proper foundation of knowledge, most black and Latino students struggle on the exam, leaving them underrepresented in elite high schools and without comparable educational options. This perspective maintains that the scarcity of black and Latino students at specialized schools derives from their maltreatment by the structure of public education as a whole.
Conversely, the opposite side contends that many of the Asian-American students at specialized high schools also come from low-income backgrounds but surmount these hardships to excel on the SHSAT. Often, poor Asian-American families will scrape together every penny to afford expensive prep classes for their children in hopes of securing them a spot at a specialized school. This mentality is a defining characteristic of Asian households; in my own family, education is non-negotiable. Rooted in a cultural belief that education breeds success, my parents were willing to spend thousands of dollars for a full-time summer program dedicated to preparing students to take the SAT. For us, it meant sacrificing a sunny stint in Europe. But for others, the costs of test preparation could mean forgoing heat, light, or gas– for months. Indeed, a study conducted by New York University affirmed that the city’s majority-Asian neighborhoods are more economically depressed than that of other racial demographics, with less than one quarter of the residing Asian adults possessing an undergraduate degree or higher. This bleak reality falls far from the “model minority” perception of Asian-Americans as high-earning, white-collar citizens. Rather, it echoes the story of the working-class immigrant that New York’s specialized high school system was designed to help in the first place. Like other children of first-generation immigrants, the wheels of my life often revolve around the axle of hard work and the idea that nothing comes free; thus, Asian-American parents believe that the SHSAT is simply another test that can be conquered with enough determination– and hours poring over practice exams. Through this lens of results-oriented dedication, Asian-Americans conclude they rightfully earned the seats allotted to them the same way anyone else could have attained one. As such, this opposing viewpoint believes that impoverished Asian-Americans succeed on the SHSAT by virtue of their unique cultural upbringing, prioritizing the exam as a passage to prosperity.
In order to close the gaping racial disparity in specialized schools, New York City ought to increase funding for middle schools in impoverished areas and decrease the budget for the Department of Corrections. Allocating more funds to public education in low-income districts targets the academic inequity at its root: the systemic correlation between poor neighborhoods and poor education. Although public schools in low-income areas of the city receive slightly more funding in the status quo than their affluent counterparts, the vast discrepancies between schools with the highest and lowest levels of impoverished students renders the difference ineffectual. This disparity becomes profoundly critical as increased school spending has led to a prominent development in student learning. Black and Latino students living in low-income neighborhoods not only lack access to and means for test preparation, but underfunded public schools leave them without a foundation to perform well on the advanced SHSAT. However, with well-financed schools, poverty-stricken students from all minority racial backgrounds – African-American, Latino, and Asian-American – will reap the benefits of more enriched academic resources, alleviating the need for expensive test preparation as the sole means to pass the SHSAT. Further, financing the costs of such indispensable resources could easily come from the city’s ever-expanding budget for the Department of Corrections. A 2017 report from New York City’s Comptroller’s office revealed that despite record-low prison populations, annual costs continue to ascend due to “mismanagement” and “failure of accountability”. By redirecting squandered funds to public schools, the city both reduces bureaucratic inefficiency within one agency and buttresses another in dire need of repair. This appropriation acts as an investment in the city’s future, one where not only the white, privileged, and wealthy can expect to succeed, but also those whose abilities have been historically hampered by a system of educational inequity.
While one perspective asserts that black and Latino students face intrinsic disadvantages in the structure of education, others affirm that Asian-American students overcome their own economic burdens to earn admission into specialized schools; nonetheless, increasing funding for impoverished middle schools would bolster academic preparedness across all low-income ethnic groups. One hundred years ago, New York City was the symbol of the American dream. To this day, the city’s symbolic landmark – the Statue of Liberty – still proudly beckons over the “poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to reverse their fortunes and achieve prosperity. New York City public magnet schools ought to do the same for the city’s disadvantaged and impoverished, and open the door for its own young, brilliant minds who, too, yearn for a better future.