How long does it take to destroy a high-performing, beloved public high school?
Fortunately, San Francisco residents won’t have to find out.
Last month, by a vote of 4-3, the San Francisco Board of Education reinstated merit-based admissions at Lowell High School, the city’s premier public school for academically gifted students. As the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi, Lowell has long offered an elite education at a public school price, providing a treasured route to the middle class for generations of largely Asian immigrant families in San Francisco. Distinguished Lowell alumni include three Nobel Prize winners, the first president of the World Bank, and retired Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer.
Lowell’s escape was a close call.
In 2020, fed up with what it considered too many Asian American students at the school, the Board of Education scrapped Lowell’s longstanding competitive admissions process in favor of a lottery. The Board hoped the lottery would limit the number of Asian American students admitted to Lowell and increase the number of black and Hispanic students.
It worked, but at a high price: Overnight, Lowell went from admitting the most academically advanced students who thrived in the school’s rigorous program to admitting a randomly chosen class of ninth graders. The result was predictable and predictably awful.
To the surprise of no one, it turns out that everybody suffers when officials prioritize racial balancing over an admissions policy that evaluates students as individuals based on their needs and abilities.
For instance, the number of freshmen earning D and F grades after their first semester tripled with the first lottery class—a rate unheard of at a school known for its high achievers. Some students were clearly in over their heads.
As one teacher told the New Yorker, a ninth-grader she’d thought was slacking off in her world history course instead turned out to have a third-grade reading level. The student wasn’t lazy. He was terrified. Similarly, academically gifted students who lost the lottery found themselves stuck in high schools with fewer advanced opportunities and challenging classes to meet their needs.
The only real surprise was that the Board of Education reversed course at all. But the decision was clear after a landslide recall election kicked three Board members out of office in February.
More than 70% of San Francisco voters supported the recall, including a large proportion of Asian-American voters frustrated by the racially motivated admissions changes at Lowell and the Board’s myopic focus on renaming schools during the pandemic instead of reopening them.
The people of San Francisco have spoken: Education matters, not identity politics.
If this recall can succeed in San Francisco—a city with more dogs than children that hasn’t recalled an elected official since 1914—it can happen anywhere. Why? Because parents care deeply about their children’s education, and communities have had enough of officials dismantling their beloved schools to serve racial ideologies.
Discriminatory bureaucrats have already come for Thomas Jefferson High School in Northern Virginia; the magnet middle schools in Montgomery County, Maryland; New York City’s Specialized High Schools; and Boston’s Exam Schools.
In each case, school boards changed admissions policies to prioritize a student’s skin color over individual skills, needs, and talents. And in each case, school boards were met with fierce resistance from parents, alumni, and community members who stood up for their schools and their children’s constitutional right to equal protection under the law, regardless of their race. Together with Pacific Legal Foundation, they are fighting in federal court to keep racial discrimination out of public school admissions.
But as events in San Francisco show, it doesn’t always take a lawsuit to enact real, incredible change.
The recall and subsequent Board of Education vote didn’t just save Lowell; it saved the fundamental belief that you can succeed with hard work and a good education, no matter who you are or where you come from.
School boards around the country, take note: That’s a belief worth fighting for.