A Case of T.M.A.?

T.M.A. Too many Asians. It's a concern discussed in hushed tones or coded language. Not in the fields of government, pro sports or Hollywood movies, but rather in the case of high school and college admissions -- most frequently, at America's most elite educational institutions.

At Harvard, the 2011-'12 incoming class was 18% Asian American. It was the same percentage at Princeton, Stanford and Columbia. At Yale, it was 15% and at the University of Michigan, 13%. A purely merit-based analysis suggests these numbers should be higher. But that would be T.M.A.

Even at some select public high schools around the country, the number of Asian Americans has been a hot-button issue. The most famous case is Lowell High School in San Francisco, where the Chinese American community has had to battle a series of policies that have aimed to manipulate the racial composition of the school. (Guess which way they want to change the numbers.) There have also been similar complaints at places like Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, VA and Boston Latin in Boston. All of these public high schools are highly competitive because they are perceived to be feeder schools to the elite colleges.

In New York City, the issue resurfaced in 2012 with a legal complaint filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund (NAACP LDF). The complaint targets the admission policy used by the city to determine who gets into one of the city's eight "specialized," top-ranked public schools, e.g., Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. (The complaint is supported by a group of civil rights organizations including LatinoJustice PRLDF, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, DRUM - Desis Rising Up and Moving and more.) The coalition charges that the admissions policy followed by these eight schools discriminates against blacks and Hispanics. They don't specifically cite overrepresentation of Asian Americans, alluding instead to rich families who can pay for private prep programs. However, the reality is that it's poor Asian American immigrants who will be most adversely affected by any proposed changes.

To catch you up to speed on the particulars in NYC: Each year, roughly 30,000 take the SHSAT, the sole determinant of admission into eight of the city's specialized high schools, or SHS. (The ninth specialized school, La Guardia, is known to most of us as the school in Fame; it requires auditions to get in.) Fewer than 6,000 nab a spot. In the city, 70% of all 8th graders are black or Hispanic. At the top school, Stuyvesant, they make up close to 1% and 2-1/2% of the student body, respectively. Meanwhile, Asian Americans are about 64% and whites 18%.

While most of us will agree these numbers are appalling and unacceptable, the disagreement lies in how to gain a better balance. Is it simply by changing the admission policy, as suggested by the NAACP LDF and other groups, or does fairness require a more rigorous examination of why the numbers look the way they do?

For instance, is the situation simply about poverty and poorer neighborhoods? This would seem not to be the case: According to the most recent figures available, over 50% of the students at Brooklyn Tech are Title I, which means their family income is low enough to qualify for free lunch. The figure at Stuyvesant is 30%.

What about family involvement and support? Many immigrant families who don't speak English at home are very successful in getting into the specialized schools, despite the inclusion of an English section on the SHSAT.

These issues of fairness in the NYC SHS admissions process have been bubbling since as early as the 70s, when the first legal challenge to the policy was made. Back then Jewish-American families, who felt they were the target of the same types of downplay-the-test policy changes being floated today, were able to codify the test-based, race-blind admissions policy into state law. Thus, the city could not change the policy on their own. Even if they could, this was not going to happen under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who defended the fairness of the one-test policy.

But there's an upcoming election in New York City in November and the prohibitive favorite, Democrat Bill de Blasio, has voiced his support for changing the system. He has since been joined by State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver and other state legislators, so it seems the city may be on the verge of making big changes to the SHS admission policy.

It's vitally important to explore ways to improve the educational opportunities available to black and Hispanic youth in the city. Too many kids tragically miss out on a shot at the top-notch education that every last one of them deserves, the kind of education that allows kids to reach their full potential and build better lives. This excellent education for all -- not just for a select few fighting over limited resources -- is what a just, equitable, and globally competitive society must demand.

As the American education system gets shaken up, it's important to take into account all disadvantaged minorities, including poor immigrant Asian American families, who probably shouldn't be lumped in with those considered to have unfair advantages when it comes to academic success. Maybe in reality it's not a case of T.M.A. after all, even if policymakers perceive things that way.

The issue is complicated, but that doesn't mean solutions can't be found that will be fair to all kids and not pit one minority against another to fight for scraps. Access to high-quality education has to be a given for every single kid, in New York City and in every other city and town across the country.