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Richard A. Carranza, the city schools chancellor, insisted last week that the plan to eliminate the entrance exam that dictates admission into Stuyvesant High School and the city’s other top public high schools was gaining traction.
“There’s some real momentum,” Mr. Carranza said at the State Capitol.
Two days later, the bill died. The Legislature adjourned, having taken no action on the specialized school exam.
The contentious bill divided many of New York’s families along racial lines: Black and Hispanic students have seen their numbers at the prized schools plummet over the last two decades, while some Asian families argued that the mayor’s plan discriminated against the low-income Asian students who are now a majority at the schools.
But the extent of the proposal’s radioactivity was unusual in Albany, particularly during a session that was marked by the newly Democrat-controlled body’s willingness to take up issues that had long been considered off-limits.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the entrance exam attracted national fanfare when it was announced, but it soon collided with stubborn realities.
The mayor, a Democrat, has few friends in Albany, and did not make new ones in his approach to the bill, which some lawmakers dismissed as grandstanding. It touched off the same racial divisions among black, Hispanic and Asian lawmakers as it had among parents in New York City. And a well-funded opposition effort led by a billionaire graduate of one of the specialized schools sent African-American parents to lawmakers’ doors, urging them to reject the bill.
A month before the end of the legislative session, Mr. de Blasio announced he would run for president, a bid that has taken him to Iowa and South Carolina on most weekends since.
“When something is so poorly done, it never had a shot — and rightfully so,” said Senator John Liu, a Queens Democrat who graduated from a specialized school, the Bronx High School of Science, and holds a key position on an education committee.
Mr. de Blasio and others have argued that the only way to increase the number of black and Hispanic students in the schools is to eliminate the exam. This year, only seven black students received offers to Stuyvesant High School, the most selective of the specialized schools, out of 895 seats. Albany has controlled the exam since 1971. Mr. de Blasio wanted to replace the test with a system that offered seats to top performers at every city middle school.
But the bill never made it to a floor vote, and only passed out of the Assembly’s education committee last week after several of the committee’s Democrats aired grievances with the legislation and voted against it.
There were no rallies in support of the mayor’s plan on the Capitol’s grand staircase and almost no lobbyists pushed it — except Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Carranza and their staff members. During a visit to the Capitol last week, Mr. Carranza said he had not spoken with the bill’s main sponsor, Assemblyman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, about whether the bill might be brought to the floor.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — a fellow Democrat who is a frequent adversary of the mayor — spent no political capital in support of the bill. The Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Westchester, never released a public statement on the proposal. And the Senate Democrats, despite holding several hearings in the city, never discussed it as a group.
Senator Shelley Mayer, a Democrat from Yonkers who is the chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee, said she had “serious process concerns” about how the mayor’s plan was introduced. Many Asian parents had fumed that Mr. de Blasio did not consult them, or offer concessions to Asian families.
The Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, appeared somewhat more willing to consider the bill. He held a hearing in Manhattan, and said in March that he wanted to see schools that were “more reflective of the city’s population.” But in the end he never publicly took a side.
Perhaps sensing some of his colleagues’ skittishness on the issue, Mr. Heastie did not bring it to the floor of the Assembly for consideration after it passed out of the education committee, dashing Mr. de Blasio’s hopes of even a symbolic vote in favor of his plan.
“It’s clear that our members are very thoughtful about this issue and want to find ways to provide all students an opportunity to get the best education possible,” Mr. Heastie said Friday.
Ultimately, only a handful of legislators were willing to publicly back the mayor’s plan.
“We’re going to sit here and say we’re progressive. Are we really progressive, or do we just want to kick the can down the line?” asked Assemblyman Al Taylor, a Manhattan Democrat, last week during the education committee’s meeting.
After considerable effort, Mr. de Blasio convinced the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus to support the plan.
But ambivalence and pockets of support were drowned out by some lawmakers’ staunch opposition.
“Racial divisions have been instigated and fomented by this administration,” Mr. Liu said on Friday.
Still, he said he had heard wide agreement that the admissions numbers are unacceptable and believes there are other ways to increase black and Hispanic enrollment. “This debate is not dead. It’s just beginning,” he said.
In casting his “no” vote during the education committee meeting earlier this week, Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat, accused the mayor of creating a “nasty narrative” that pitted Asian families against black and Hispanic parents.
Mr. Carranza denied that legislators were avoiding the topic because of its explosiveness.
“This is a tough conversation, and we acknowledge that,” he told reporters at the Capitol.
An April town hall meeting in Queens offered a window into how much passion — and tension — the elite schools can evoke.
Speaking before a packed room, Mary Alice Miller, a black alumna of Stuyvesant, said the arguments against change were filled with “racial coding.”
“It’s very offensive to hear all the racial coding: that African-Americans are not good enough, if more of us are accepted into the schools, the specialized schools will bring down their standards.”
“The schools are a public good for everybody,” she added. “We do not want to be displaced from the schools that we helped build.”
Before the meeting, Bernard Chow, a Queens activist, spoke against the mayor’s proposal.
“All the hard-working students, the students who are willing to give up basketball and stay home and study,” he said, speaking over “keep the test” chants and banging drums. “Those students who are willing to give up video games, and look at the book, it’s unfair to them.”
Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, likened Mr. de Blasio’s plan to the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1800s law restricting Asian immigration.
A few minutes later, Dulce Marquez, a recent New York high school graduate, called the entrance exam “a product of institutional racism.”
As the discussion outside of Albany grew more fraught, wealthy benefactors jumped in, helping to guarantee that Mr. de Blasio’s plan would fail.
Over the last two months, an effort spearheaded by Ronald Lauder, a billionaire cosmetics heir who graduated from Bronx Science, poured several million dollars into an advertising and lobbying effort to keep the exam and diversify the schools through other means, including free universal test preparation and more gifted and talented programs.
Mr. Lauder’s effort paid for about 40 black and Hispanic parents to travel to Albany this month, where they knocked on dozens of lawmakers’ office doors to lobby against Mr. de Blasio’s bill and for Mr. Lauder’s alternatives. Television ads and targeted social media posts helped buoy Mr. Lauder’s plan.
Mr. Lauder also hired two lobbying firms — Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates and Bolton St.-Johns — known for their close ties to the Assembly and to Mr. Cuomo. The firms helped to quash an 11th-hour proposal from Mr. de Blasio to eliminate the exam in exchange for more gifted programs, which Mr. Heastie rejected.
Mr. Lauder’s proposals also failed to win approval by session’s end.
Now, with the proposal to change specialized school admissions dead in Albany, Mr. de Blasio will likely face pressure to confront the enormity of the city’s school segregation problem.
And he may face new questions about why he has not changed admissions at the five specialized schools — not including Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or Brooklyn Technical High School — that the city does control.
Though the city has acknowledged that it could eliminate the test at the other five specialized schools, the mayor has said he does not want a two-tiered system.
Even under the mayor’s plan to expand a program aimed at enrolling more low-income students in the specialized schools, offers to black and Hispanic students will increase to only 16 percent from 10 percent. Black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70 percent of the school system as a whole.
“Cities all over the nation have turned away from completely unfiltered, high-stakes testing and our state remains stuck in the past,” Mr. de Blasio said Friday. “Session may have ended, but our quest to provide our kids with the best opportunity possible has not.”