Asian American parent groups are suing the New York State Education Department over an extracurricular STEM program for low-income and “historically underrepresented” students that they say unfairly excludes Asian and white students. Advocates for equity in education warn that a ruling in the plaintiff’s favor could further erode efforts to ensure racial integration in schools and workplaces.
The federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday takes aim at the state-funded Science and Technology Program, or STEP, which was enacted in 1985 and offers thousands of eligible seventh-to-12th graders extra lab research opportunities, tutoring and college admissions help.
Participants must be Black, Hispanic or Latino, or Native American — or have a family income below the program’s threshold, which is currently set at $33,874 for a family with two children.
“In other words, the Hispanic child of a multimillionaire is eligible to apply to STEP,” the complaint states. “While an Asian American child whose family earns just above the state’s low-income threshold is not, solely because of her race or ethnicity.”
The plaintiffs claim that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year that struck down affirmative action in college admissions bolsters the case. One of the plaintiffs, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, or CACAGNY, filed an amicus brief in that case on behalf of Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
In a statement, Wai Wah Chin, charter president of CACAGNY, said “the Supreme Court has been very clear.” The first sentence of the lawsuit cites last year’s ruling: “eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”
The state education department declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday.
Over 12,209 students across the state were enrolled in STEP in the 2021-2022 school year, according to a fact sheet from the State Education Department. The vast majority of them — over 10,000 students — were Black or Hispanic. And 84% of the program’s graduates that year said they planned to attend college.
The statute that created the program is enshrined in state law, and says eligible students are those who are either “economically disadvantaged” or “minorities historically underrepresented” in science, technical and health-related professions. The Board of Regents is charged with defining who qualifies for STEP under those terms.
The plaintiffs have opposed local diversity programs in education in the past. CACAGNY filed a lawsuit in 2018 over the Discovery Program in New York City’s specialized high schools, which aims to boost admissions for “disadvantaged” students. A judge ruled against the group in 2021.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a prominent conservative law firm, is the attorney in the current suit against the state education department. The firm previously represented CACAGNY in its 2018 case and the amicus brief it filed with the Supreme Court over college admissions.
Another plaintiff in the case is CACAGNY member Yiatin Chu. Her child, a seventh-grader identified as “N.C.” in court documents, wanted to apply for STEP at NYU for this summer but didn’t meet the racial or family income requirements.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to ban the state education department from using “racial classifications” and criteria in determining which students are eligible for STEP.
“Asian students and white students have a higher hurdle to jump over,” said William Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, and founder of the Equal Protection Project. “And we think that’s unlawful — that all students should have the same hurdle to jump over.”
He added: “Open it up to everybody on equal terms.”
Nyah Berg, executive director of New York Appleseed, a group that advocates for racially integrated schools, said the case presented a “bastardization” of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which was enacted shortly after the Civil War and granted formerly enslaved people citizenship and extended them the liberties granted by the Bill of Rights. She pointed to data showing that Asian and white workers are overrepresented in STEM fields, while Black and Latino workers are underrepresented relative to their share of the population.
State labor department data from 2015 shows nearly 70% of core jobs in STEM fields across New York state were held by white workers, 16.6% by Asian workers, and less than 7% each by Black and Latino workers.
“We’re not working on a level playing field,” Berg said. “It seems like just another case that’s further dismantling protections that are supposed to be supporting folks that have just been systemically disenfranchised.”
Berg called the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action a “warning bell.” She said conservative groups targeting college admissions are now using the ruling as a “stepping stone” to challenge similar programs in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We knew this would happen,” she said. “It’s very much a way to keep us segregated and keep a status quo.”