The New Jews?

The strong Asian-American presence at New York’s elite public high schools has been years in the making. Now, however, comes the backlash: parents are complaining, in essence, that schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are, you know, too Asian.

Sound familiar? It should. Decades ago, there were plenty of complaints that Stuyvesant and Bronx Science were, well, too Jewish. To be sure, these schools had a conspicuous Jewish presence, but rather than congratulate Jewish parents for emphasizing hard work and scholarship, critics complained that somehow the system favored Jewish students.

It’s déjà vu all over again, except this time Asian-Americans and their families are the targets of envious begrudgers who seem to believe that somehow the system is rigged against non-Asian students, that Asian-American families are unfairly overrepresented in the city’s elite high schools.

There’s a movement afoot to change the admissions process for Stuyvesant and the city’s other top high schools. Rather than rely on an admissions test alone, critics want the elite schools to consider intangibles like teacher recommendations and personal experience, as well as grades from middle school.

Those who demand these changes insist that they are acting in the name of diversity. But it’s not hard to discern another agenda, one driven by envy and, frankly, no small amount of bigotry. How else to explain complaints about the so-called “Asian-ification” of Stuyvesant and other elite schools?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made it clear that he supports the current system. Students take a test, and if they do well, they are admitted. Case closed. It is, the mayor rightly argues, a colorblind, religion-blind, ethnic-group-blind process.

And that’s how it should be. Generations of outstanding Jewish students in New York worked hard—sometimes on their own, sometimes at the insistence of their parents—scored well, and were rewarded for their efforts. Whispered, and some not-so-whispered, complaints about the strong Jewish presence at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech were recognized as little more than envy driven by anti-Semitism.

Envy hasn’t disappeared, as this controversy shows. New Yorkers of all colors, creeds and ethnicities should be delighted that the city remains a magnet for mothers, fathers and children who are determined to get ahead, even if that means spending hours upon hours prepping for the high school admissions test. Yes, the Asian-American students who dominate many of the city’s elite schools certainly are driven. Their parents are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to give them an edge. Parents and children alike believe that their work and sacrifice will be rewarded. That’s such a bad thing?

Unfortunately, Asian-American achievement is spawning a backlash rather than a celebration, at least in some circles. The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund is among several groups that have filed a complaint against the current admissions test. Critics insinuate that the test is unfair in part because some families can afford test prep classes (some families, of course, sacrifice in order to pay for these classes). But that argument is a fallacy—the city actually offers free preparation classes for the admissions test. Forty-three percent of the students enrolled in these classes are Asian-American.

The current system is absolutely fair, as the mayor points out. It has served generations of ambitious, high-achieving New Yorkers very well.

Envy should not drive educational policy.