New York City

Liu on what needs to happen before lifting the charter cap

State Senator John Liu talks to City & State about the SHSAT, student suspensions and school safety.

John Liu.

John Liu. Photo by Eric McNatt

Few state lawmakers have more sway over New York City schools than state Sen. John Liu, who is not shying away from controversy four months after taking over the Senate Committee on New York City Education.

The Queens lawmaker has said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took a “racist” approach to changing the the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools. A series of community forums are being held to examine the issue, but that is hardly the only issue that is coming before Liu’s committee post-budget. The cap on charter schools and concerns about school safety are two other topics that could heat up in the weeks ahead.

In an exclusive interview with City & State, Liu explains what he thinks Gov. Andrew Cuomo needs to do before he tries to raise a cap on charter schools, what he is learning about the Specialized High School Admissions Test and why some teachers say they are not safe in the classroom. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The governor has come out for raising the charter school cap. Could it happen?

If the governor wants to increase the number of charter schools, he should be advocating for increased transparency and accountability so that charter schools face the same level of scrutiny that public schools face and from that, maybe, we can have a discussion. But simply to to increase the number without any other reforms? There's no compelling reason for that kind of change.

You recently started a series of community forums on the SHSAT. Are people saying anything new about this controversy?

I don't necessarily agree that the specialized high school issue is so controversial. It has just simply been completely mishandled – including a racist element in it. This never needed to be so divisive. It's the way City Hall put it out there that created the divisiveness.

One person made the point that the Specialized High School Admissions Test is very similar in format and content to the 8th grade statewide standardized tests – suggesting that if the SHSAT is eliminated perhaps the statewide standardized tests should also. Many of the people who spoke acknowledged that it is a problem that such a small number of African American and Latinx students gained entry into the specialized high schools. But it became very clear that people attribute the problem to different causes. If you listen to the mayor and the chancellor, they think that this test is invalid.

Other people have very different ideas about why the results are what they are. Many of them attribute the racial disparities to the early years of public school education and that African American and Latinx students have been discriminated against by not gaining a good quality education and the problem starts in kindergarten as opposed to from the eighth grade.

You said the process the mayor used to develop his proposal was “racist.” Do you have any proof of that?

The administration intentionally and deliberately excluded the Asian-American community for the simple reason that they already knew what the input from the Asian community was going to be and it was just more convenient to leave the Asian-American community out of equation.

But is there any actual evidence, say emails or anything else?

Modern-day racism doesn't manifest itself in emails. Has anybody refuted my comments in the last two weeks that they've been out there? There are five elected officials who are Asian-Americans – not counting me, I wasn't an elected official last years – two members of Congress, two members of the Assembly, and two members of the City Council. None of them were consulted. Now at this time last year, I did not call it racist because I didn't have the full picture. In the intervening months, I've come to have a much clearer picture of what happened.

School suspensions are down dramatically this year, but teachers have expressed concerns about how it’s affecting safety. Thoughts?

This is an issue that is not going to just go away so we will address it at some point – probably sooner rather than later. The issue is actually pretty straightforward. No one should fear for their safety or security in our public schools. The policies that we have seen in schools have shifted dramatically perhaps from one end of the spectrum to the other. Where we should end up is somewhere in the middle.

Now, we're seeing a dramatic decline in the number of school suspensions. That itself may send the wrong kind of message and teachers are complaining about it. Teachers have been complaining that they don't necessarily feel secure or safe anymore. If teachers are saying that, many, many more students must be feeling the same. On the other hand, we also don't want a system where we see 7-year-olds handcuffed in schools to bathroom stalls.