The debate around the admittance process to New York City’s elite public high schools may play a role in the state Senate rematch between state Sen. Tony Avella and former New York City Comptroller John Liu. The pair faced off in 2014 when Avella first joined the now-defunct group of Democrats that allied with Republicans called the Independent Democratic Conference. Liu is looking to capitalize on new anti-IDC energy that didn’t exist then to oust the incumbent now.
On Tuesday, Avella held a rally on the steps of City Hall touting new legislation he has introduced “aimed at saving the Specialized High School Exam,” as a press release announcing the rally puts it. The bill would make no changes to the test or the admittance process, but would expand gifted and talented programs in lower grades to ensure every school has them.
In June, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed abolishing the Specialized High School Admittance Test, or SHSAT, in order to increase diversity at the schools. Currently, the test is the sole criterion for getting into one of eight specialized high schools. He suggested instead admitting students based on grades and state test scores.
De Blasio’s proposal created intense backlash, particularly in the Asian-American community, who make up a plurality of students at those elite high schools. Asian Americans argued that the mayor’s proposal is biased against them, and pits communities of color against each other.
The 11th state Senate District, where the race between Avella and Liu is playing out, is nearly 35 percent Asian.
Avella told City & State that his legislation has been years in the making. He did, however, say that the mayor’s proposal “may have stimulated us to move a little bit ahead of schedule.”
“I think because of the mayor’s proposal, everybody was willing to finally come to a conclusion in what we needed to do,” Avella said.
In the case of the legislation, Avella said that means providing equal opportunity to all students regardless of the school they attend and the neighborhood they live in, and giving disadvantaged kids a chance to pass the exam.
Avella denied that the legislation had anything to do withi his race against Liu. “I never look at the politics of the situation,” he said.
But Liu does not believe that. “He’s attempting to use this as a wedge issue because there are some people in the community who accuse me of wanting to abolish the SHSAT, which I never wanted,” Liu told City & State.
Liu pointed to the first time he challenged Avella in 2014, when the issue of the exam was also controversial. At that time, Liu accused Avella of flip-flopping on his position when Avella withdrew his support for legislation that would have changed the admittance process for specialized high schools and came out in opposition to any change. A spokesman for Avella said that the state senator met with constituency groups who voiced their concerns about the test and they convinced him to change his position.
Today, Liu called the focus on diversifying specialized high schools a red herring for the broader need to end segregation in New York City schools. He added that on the “very narrow” issue of the SHSAT, the fact that so few black students pass that exam is an issue that needs solving, but that this should happen without abolishing the test. “I can’t profess that I have the magic elixir here, but I do know that it’s not something that can be put out in a press release, which is what de Blasio did,” Liu said.
Avella said he believes Liu’s current support for the SHSAT is a recent development. “It’s been my understanding that he has been historically against the test,” Avella said, referring to Liu’s past opposition to high-stakes testing in general.
However, Liu told City & State that this never meant he wanted to get rid of testing altogether, simply to make changes that ensure students continue to learn rather than be coached in the classroom.
That distinction may not make a difference to voters in his district. During their 2014 contest, Liu supported adding admission criteria to specialized high schools beyond just the one test, while Avella rescinded his support from a bill that would have done that. Liu did not support eliminating the test then, just as he is not advocating for that now, but some of the test’s proponents acted as if he did.
In a 2014 update to a still-active Change.org petition to maintain the SHSAT, the organizers considered Liu’s loss a victory for their cause that improved their chances in Albany. And a 2014 blog post on a website dedicated to preserving the test read, “If you want to keep the exam for the Specialized High School as is, you will support Tony Avella.”
One Queens Democratic insider, who requested anonymity to speak freely, thinks the issue will not prove to be a defining one this year, saying that since the end of the state legislative session, some of the urgency has diminished. But the insider added that, if anything, Avella’s decision to hold a rally and bring attention back to the topic may actually be dangerous for him.
“By making people think, ‘This issue’s out there, and, oh my God, something needs to be done,’ it’s much more likely to drive more Asian-Americans out to the polls and therefore help John,” the insider said, referring to the likelihood that the voting bloc would vote for the Taiwanese-American Liu over the Avella, who is white.
However, Avella may hope that bringing specialized high schools back to the forefront will remind Asian-Americans of questions raised about Liu’s positions in the past. It also may help Avella by drawing attention away from his participation in the IDC.