Mayor London Breed is reportedly rounding third on selecting three new members of the school board. And this is a fraught process for her: With de facto mayoral control of the Board of Education, school performance joins homelessness and public safety as yet another intractable problem for which voters can hold her accountable in the year leading up to her re-election bid.
It’s also a fraught process for those three new board members, who’ll have to run on their own in November. And it’s a fraught process for a board and district that will have to balance a tough budget, hire a new superintendent, implement a school assignment system, cope with declining enrollment, turn around rock-bottom morale — and deal with Lowell, of course.
The previous school board’s decision to nix Lowell High School’s merit-based admissions process induced great vengeance and furious anger from that school’s partisans and alumni, who won a legal challenge, and played no small role in adding fuel to the recall fire.
But, regardless of what those partisans and alumni want, Lowell’s old admissions process isn’t coming back — and can’t come back.
Numerous current and former Board of Education members tell Mission Local that the school district’s general counsel has warned them, in closed-session meetings and in writing, that Lowell’s old merit-based admissions policy is incompatible with California law.
If the district were to be sued, it would lose. In private, the district has been candid about this for years.
And, now, it admits it publicly.
This revelation is a long time coming. In 2018, the Chronicle reported that some board members were concerned the district’s policies could violate state law. But the Board of Education members I spoke with last week expressed this in far more certain terms.
“When I was on the board, the district general counsel essentially told us that Lowell was in violation of state law,” said one board alum, “and if we were to be sued, we’d lose.”
“I got legal advice when I was on the Board of Education that Lowell’s admission policy is in violation of the California education code,” said another. “They warned us about that.”
“We would never create a Lowell today. It is an anachronism,” said a third. “If somebody sued us over admissions at Lowell, I don’t know we could’ve won or even defended it. The board, for years, looked for ways to undo it in a manner that wouldn’t bring a political storm down on the school district. I never understood why some equity group didn’t sue us. That would’ve eliminated the sturm und drang.”
The fates of vanquished Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Fauuga Moliga illustrate how far that sturm und drang could go. You can chalk up prior boards’ inaction on Lowell as prioritizing of more important matters, political astuteness, or a desire for political survival. Just like explaining the factors behind the successful recall, more than one thing can simultaneously be true.
If you’re wondering just what passage of the California Education Code has the school district lawyers gritting their teeth, check 35160.5 (b)(2)(B).
The operative passage states that if more students want to go to a school than it has room to serve, the district must ensure “that selection of pupils to enroll in the school is made through a random, unbiased process that prohibits an evaluation of whether a pupil should be enrolled based upon the pupil’s academic or athletic performance.”
This stipulation does not apply to “programs for gifted and talented pupils” or “specialized schools.”
There are a great many gifted and talented students at Lowell, but it is not an explicit Gifted and Talented Education program. It’s a high school.
Similarly, it is not a “specialized” school. If you’re uncertain exactly what a specialized school is, the state Department of Education lists establishments focusing on adults, American Indians, homeless people, the blind, the deaf, etc. It also lists “private schools and schooling at home.”
Lowell is not that. It isn’t even categorized as a magnet school; it’s a “comprehensive” high school.
Again, the district knows this. While district officials prevaricated to the Chronicle about Lowell’s status in 2018 (when the school’s merit-based admissions policy was actively violating state codes), they’ve chosen to be direct about the situation now (after that policy has been rescinded).
“Any decision to either restore the Lowell Admissions Policy or to supersede it with another admissions policy must be consistent with the requirements of Education Code section 35160.5 (b)(2)(B) which explicitly prohibits public school districts from making enrollment decisions based on the student’s academic performance,” the district stated in an email to Mission Local on Friday.
In “spring 2022, the Superintendent will return to the Board with a recommended timeline for stakeholder engagement and decision on the admissions policy for Lowell High School for 2023-2024 and subsequent school years.”
The Board of Education’s decision to permanently undo Lowell’s merit-based admission criteria came in February 2021. One month later, an incensed Lowell alumna unearthed a series of incendiary 2016 tweets from school board vice president Alison Collins that, among other claims, posited that Asians “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’”
Until the 2020-21 school year, more than 50 percent of Lowell’s students were Asian, and Asians constitute a 33 percent plurality district-wide. Suddenly, a process that would have always been contentious was rendered downright toxic.
The board’s decision to enact this change in the midst of the pandemic, and in a manner so devoid of public input a judge later declared it illegal, would have been problematic regardless of the result. It was a repeat of the board’s misadventure in renaming schools. Once again, a necessary conversation and a goal that many people could have been convinced to accept, if not embrace, was dashed by an arrogant and misguided process.
The legacy of the recalled school board members may end up being a tarnishing of the very concepts of equity and racial justice, two ideals everyone in San Francisco ostensibly says they support. And that’s a damn shame: The ousted commissioners’ hamfisted, overbearing behavior has made it that much harder for the remaining members of the board to push back against a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has often ill-served its poor and minority students.
Regardless, by next month, the ousted commissioners’ ideological allies will be outvoted. Soon, a majority of school board members will pick up the phone when the mayor calls, not when the teachers’ union calls.
Breed’s political future is now tied to this board, so expect her to nominate loyalists. Also expect her to focus on people who have a shot at winning in November, and people who’ve done something for her before.
There are also complicated racial sensitivities the mayor must navigate to replace an ousted Black woman, Latina woman, and Pacific Islander man. And then there’s the Chinese community, which was pivotal in pushing the recall — and is growing tired of asking for proper representation. Recall leader Ann Hsu last week told Mission Local that “I think all of us expect that the mayor will appoint at least one Chinese person. I think if she doesn’t, there will be an uproar.” (When you call around seeking names of potential nominees, Hsu comes up a lot).
In spite of all the opprobrium the school board brought on itself by rescinding Lowell’s merit-based admissions process, and in spite of the resultant support and energy funneled into the recall movement, Lowell’s old system isn’t coming back. Figuring out what comes next will be a task for the next school board. And it’s hard to foresee any potential outcome that would please the ardent supporters of Lowell’s prior system who helped carry the recall.
The next year and a half of political wars, posturing and jockeying involving our public schools figures to be exhausting. And that doesn’t even take into account the small matter of educating our children.