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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s specialized high school proposal clears one (small) hurdle

Governor Cuomo shakes hands with Assembly Speaker Heastie after his executive budget address.
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with Assembly Speaker Heastie after his executive budget address.
Darren McGee-Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

A bill to overhaul admissions at New York City’s premier high schools passed the Assembly education committee on Wednesday — but debate over the controversial plan has just begun.

The current proposal would replace the specialized high school admissions test — the only way students can currently earn seats at eight top-tier city high schools — with a system based on grades and standardized test scores. Mayor Bill de Blasio threw his support behind the plan over the weekend, arguing it will help diversify the schools.

But the news quickly drummed up intense opposition from alumni groups and leaders in the Asian American community, who say the law targets Asian students who perform well on the test. These groups have latched onto Wednesday’s vote as a sign the bill is being rammed through the legislature with little public discussion.

But in reality, the bill must still clear many difficult hurdles before it becomes law, including approval from the full Assembly, Senate, and governor. Most experts and policymakers think it’s unlikely the issue will be resolved this year.

Approval in the full Assembly is arguably the easiest problem the bill has left to overcome in theory. But the leader of the Assembly said Wednesday lawmakers will reach out to concerned communities before deciding how to proceed. (And that would likely be tough to do with less than 10 days left in this year’s session.)

“This is a first step in addressing this issue, and I will be having conversations with Assembly members and various stakeholders to determine how to proceed in order to best serve New York City’s school children,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a statement. “The Assembly Majority will work deliberatively, speaking with all the affected communities, so that together we can find a resolution that benefits all of New York City’s students.”

Even if the bill cleared the Assembly, the Senate would also need to pass the legislation. However, the Senate has been in a stalemate and is struggling to pass any legislation right now. Plus, even some Democratic Senators, who de Blasio would likely need to rally to his side, are currently opposing the bill.

Additionally, the governor has signaled he does not want to tackle the issue this year and instead may try to tie it to a broader education discussion next year that includes control over city schools.

Even de Blasio, who said he’s “hoping against hope” that the bill gets passed this year, seemed to acknowledge it is a long shot. As a press conference on Sunday he said, “If we can’t get it done now, it sets us up very well to get it done in the next session.”

Despite the fact that most lawmakers and advocates say it’s unlikely the bill will pass this year, a lot can happen in Albany in just a few weeks. The state is known for approving sweeping changes at the last-minute in an omnibus bill called the “big ugly.”

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