The San Francisco Board of Education has voted unanimously to set aside for one year the longstanding merit-based admissions at Lowell High School. The change is allegedly due to the pandemic, but parents have reason to believe there’s more to it.

Board president Mark Sanchez cited a need “to deal with Lowell long-term,” and board vice president Gabriela Lopez backs the elimination of “merit based and illegal entrances into our public schools.” Board member Alison Collins has charged that the merit-based system was an “inherently racist construct" designed and centered on “white supremacist framing.”

The notion that high academic achievement is a matter of white supremacy would surprise Thomas Sowell, one of the nation’s outstanding scholars. The African-American, raised in Harlem, earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard, a masters at Columbia, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, long before the days of racial preferences.

As the San Francisco Examiner reports, in 2018–19, more than half of Lowell students were Asian, 17 percent were white, 12 percent were Hispanic, and less than 2 percent were black. This violates the diversity dogma that Lowell students must represent the ethnic proportions of the population, and if they do not, it can only be due to racial discrimination, white supremacy, and so forth.

The diversity dogma, which is not law, fails to account for personal differences, effort, and choice. With those factors in play, statistical disparities will be the rule, not the exception.

“I don’t understand what merit has to do with racism,” SFUSD grad Andrew Tang told reporters Tuesday. “Merit is all about individual abilities.” Eighth grader Oscar Davidorf told reporters he had worked hard to achieve good grades and “I feel like my rights are being violated.” Lowell’s high standards, others contended, had played a major role in their university and career achievements.

Pro-merit students and parents might wonder about Gabriela Lopez’s charge of “illegal entrances” to public schools. What is in fact illegal is the practice of granting preferences for admission on the basis of race and ethnicity.

In 1996, 55.4 percent of California voters approved the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), which barred racial and ethnic preferences in state education, employment, and contracting. Educators could still take affirmative action to cast a wide net, boost K–12 standards, and help students on an economic basis. What they could not do was they give preference on the basis of race.

Proposition 16 on the November 3 ballot would reverse the law voters approved in 1996. This is the vote parents and students statewide need to watch. Proposition 16 would turn back the clock to the days when state educators rejected highly qualified students and gave preference to others on the basis of race and ethnicity, not test scores and proven achievement.

Parents and students can have little doubt that San Francisco is exploiting a pandemic to cancel merit-based admissions in the long term. That would enroll Lowell High in systemic racial and ethnic discrimination, and student achievement will surely decline in the long term.

In the meantime, the board’s decision flags another issue.

By many accounts, Lowell is the most sought-after high school in San Francisco, and few would dispute that merit-based admissions are a key factor. Parents and students opposed to the change should be able to choose an independent school that accepts students on the basis of merit while providing assistance on the economic side.

With few exceptions, the government K–12 system is a factory of mediocrity and failure. True reform and higher achievement will come only when every parent can choose the schools their children attend, as a matter of basic civil rights.