New York City

Liu: No quick fix to specialized high schools entrance exam

Lawmaker says de Blasio push to scrap SHSAT would cause ‘years and years of strife.’

John Liu.

John Liu. Photo by Eric McNatt

Anyone hoping for an overhaul of New York City’s specialized high school admission process is likely in for a long wait. 

State Sen. John Liu said at City & State’s Education Summit on Thursday that he doesn’t expect any major changes to come out of Albany for at least several years as lawmakers and stakeholders figure out the best way to address racial disparities at the city’s specialized schools. The Queens lawmaker said that he does not yet know the best path forward, adding that he and his colleagues in the state Legislature don’t want to act hastily in response to results from the Specialized High Schools Admission Test.

“I want to have some kind of answer … but I want to make sure we get it right,” said Liu, who chairs the Senate’s New York City Education Committee. “We’re not going to solve this problem that has been an issue for decades overnight, so I’d rather take the extra time to do it.”

Liu pointed to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to scrap the exam as one knee-jerk reaction that was rushed out before it all of its implications could be understood. The debate has caused an uproar among Asian Americans who say the plan discriminates against their kids and pits them against other minorities, while de Blasio himself admitted the rollout could have been better. Liu said de Blasio’s plan, introduced to the state Legislature by Assemblyman Charles Barron, is not sustainable.

“Even if we passed it next year, it would result in years and years of strife,” Liu said. “It would collapse on itself and we’d have to do something else within a few years.”

Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, a panelist at the event with Liu, echoed the state senator’s sentiments about the need for measured debate, while also adding how nonsensical that Albany makes decisions about New York City public schools. A law from 1971 called the Hecht-Calandra Act enshrined the SHSAT into state law, which is why any changes to admissions must be done through the state Legislature. Albany has control over city schools, although generally vote to enact mayoral control every couple of years. However, Benedetto suggested that no one should hold their breath about changes to that law either because lawmakers in the Capitol may not want to relinquish their power. 

“Given my druthers, I’d say repeal Hecht-Calandra and be done with it,” said Benedetto, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee. “But it’s kind of nice to be wanted, isn’t it? People coming knocking on your doors and saying, ‘Help us out here, come up with a solution.’”

Zoe Markman, a specialized high school student and another panelist with Liu and Benedetto, took issue with the pace of change they described. She said that the lawmakers approached the issue from a political point of view, while current students face an imperfect system now and will continue to as Albany weighs solutions. 

“To me, the question of these schools isn’t ‘What’s going to happen in 20 years,’ it’s ‘What’s going to happen to me,’” Markman said. “The Specialized High School Admission Test right now defines what my little brother’s going to do. … What we need is action from the city and the state.”


Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the specialized high school student on the panel.