San Francisco School Board Commissioner Calls Merit-Based Education 'Racist,' Sparking Debate

The merit-based admissions policy at one of the country's top public high schools—San Francisco's Lowell High School—has been called unfair and unjust in a controversial new resolution to end its selective process. A particularly sharp critique of the school's current policy came from Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins, who called it "racist."

San Francisco
If passed, a resolution will change the admissions policy for an elite San Francisco high school. One school board member called the policy "racist." Getty

During a San Francisco Board of Education public meeting on October 13, 2020, Collins said, "When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing...those are racist systems.… You can't talk about social justice, and then say you want to have a selective school that keeps certain kids out from the neighborhoods that you think are dangerous."

Sophie Bearman of San Francisco's online publication Here/Say Media posted a clip of Collins' October statements on Twitter this week.

At the heart of these debates is the question of what constitutes fair admissions criteria.

On Oct. 13, 2020, Commissioner Alison Collins said that merit is racist and the "antithesis of fair." (3/7)

— Sophie Bearman (@stbearman) February 2, 2021

Not everyone agrees with Collins' assessment. Local news affiliate ABC7 quoted Richard Shapiro, a Lowell physics teacher, as saying the current system rewards "the hardest working kids in terms of academics."

Currently, there are two criteria for students to get into Lowell: an excellent grade point average and a high score on an admissions test. The only other high school in San Francisco that also has admissions requirements is the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, while the rest of the city's public high schools use a random lottery system.

The resolution, entitled "In Response to Ongoing, Pervasive Systemic Racism at Lowell High School," was authored by Collins, Board President Gabriela Lopez, Commissioner Matt Alexander, and Student Delegates Shavonne Hines-Foster and Kathya Correa Almanza. It was introduced to the board on Tuesday and is up for vote on February 9.

When Here/Say Media's Sophie Bearman posted the video of Collins on Twitter, the comments that followed showed how deeply divisive the issue is for residents. One person questioned if Collins realized that in other nations "standardized tests and meritocracy are standard and key component[s] to progress." Others felt the issue was being unnecessarily politicized, while at least one commenter pointed out standardized testing has been called racist before.

The San Francisco Chronicle noted the board appeared to support the resolution. However, board member Jenny Lam said she felt the issue was being rushed and their attention should remain on how and when to safely reopen local schools still shuttered due to the pandemic.

Lowell consistently ranks as one of the country's best public high schools, but it has been criticized before for its lack of diversity with critics pointing out African Americans make up only 2 percent of the student body. Adding to the school's race issues was the use of anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs on a school messaging platform during an anti-racism lesson last month.

The resolution about Lowell comes after the recent divisive vote by the city's school board to rename public schools named after Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. The move was said to be for social justice, though opponents felt it went too far since Lincoln abolished slavery and the latter two were Union officers before serving as presidents.

Correction, 02/05, 3:00 PM: This story originally stated that the quotes from San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins came from a Here/Say Media interview. The quotes actually came from a Board of Education public meeting.