(Reuters) - A group of New York City students filed a sweeping lawsuit on Tuesday that accuses the United States’ largest public school system of perpetuating racism via a flawed admissions process for selective programs that favors white students.
The lawsuit in state court in Manhattan argues that a “rigged system” begins sorting children academically when they are as young as 4 years old, using criteria that disproportionately benefit more affluent, white students.
As a result, minority students are often denied an opportunity to gain access to more selective programs, from elementary to high school, and are instead relegated to failing schools that exacerbate existing inequities, the lawsuit contends.
The complaint asks a judge to order the school system to eliminate its current admissions screening process for intensely competitive selective programs, including gifted and talented programs and more academically rigorous middle and high schools.
“Racism thrives in New York City through its school system,” Mark Rosenbaum of the pro bono law firm Public Counsel said at a news conference. He is one of several lawyers, including prominent civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, representing the students.
Rosenbaum described the case as “the first lawsuit of its kind in the nation: to secure for the children of New York City the constitutional right to an anti-racist education as an integral part of a sound and basic education.”
The city’s public school system is the country’s largest, with approximately 1 million students, and has long been seen as deeply segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. Close to three-quarters of Black and Latino students attend schools that have less than 10% white students, while more than a third of white students attend schools with majority white populations, according to data collected by the City Council.
Two years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to eliminate the admissions exam for elite specialized high schools, but the state legislature, which has authority over the exam, rejected his proposal.
In a statement, Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the city’s education department, noted the de Blasio administration has recently made some changes, including using teacher evaluations rather than a standardized test to identify gifted 4-year-olds and temporarily suspending middle-school admissions screens.
“This administration has taken bold, unprecedented steps to advance equity in our admissions policies,” she said. “Our persistent work to drive equity for New York City families is ongoing, and we will review the suit.”
The lawsuit, however, argued those moves do not go far enough to address the problem.
At a news conference, de Blasio would not specifically comment on pending litigation. But he agreed that specialized high school admissions are “broken” and said the city needs a new system for its gifted and talented program.
The plaintiffs include IntegrateNYC, a youth-led nonprofit devoted to integrating the school system.
In addition to admissions criteria, the lawsuit also faults the school system’s curriculum, arguing that students of color learn that “civilization is equated with whiteness” and that history is taught from a Eurocentric point of view.
While the school system is majority Black and Latino, most teachers and administrators are white, the lawsuit notes.
Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall
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