The Left’s War on Gifted Kids

Local progressive activists have found a cause even more unpopular than "Defund the police," and are pushing it with even greater vigor.

A student takes a test on a desk that has tiny police officers on it
Mark Boster / Peter Zay / Getty / The Atlantic

Updated at 9:50 a.m. ET on July 1, 2021

The Democratic primary voters of deep-blue New York City delivered a message clearly, firmly, and loudly: “Defund the police” was stupid and is now over. The first tally of the mayoral primary showed the pro-funding and pro-reform ex–police officer Eric Adams atop a large lead. The next day, President Joe Biden urged Democratic cities and states to spend some of their billions in coronavirus-relief money to hire more cops and put them on more streets.

Last summer, mobs of people attacked stores in New York, Chicago, and other great cities. The large majority of them will get away with it. They were not arrested at the time, and even if they are arrested, most will not face charges. But the moral holiday is over—or so Democratic officeholders now insist, in hope of seizing the anti-crime issue for themselves in the 2022 elections.

The Democrats’ pivot on law enforcement offers many lessons. One should be this: It’s hard to recover after activists tie a political party to an extreme and unpopular position. The time to act is early, to prevent the association at the start.

But as unpopular as “Defund the police” is, local progressive activists have found a cause even more anathema—and are pushing it with even greater vigor. Eighty-three percent of American adults believe that testing is appropriate to determine whether students may enroll in special or honors programs, according to one of the country’s longest-running continuous polls of attitudes toward education.

Yet across the U.S., blue-state educational authorities have turned hostile to academic testing in almost all of its forms. In recent months, honors programs have been eliminated in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle. On Long Island, New York, and in Pennsylvania and Virginia, curricula are being rethought to eliminate tracking that separates more- and less-adept student populations. New York City’s specialist public high schools are under fierce pressure to revise or eliminate academic standards for admission. Boston’s exam schools will apply different admissions standards in different zip codes. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School has switched from academically selective admission to a lottery system. At least a thousand colleges and universities have halted use of the SAT, either permanently or as an experiment. But the experiments are rapidly hardening into permanent changes, notably at the University of California, but also in Washington State and Colorado. SAT subject tests have been junked altogether.

Special programs don’t poll as well when the questions stipulate that many Black and Hispanic students would not qualify for admittance. But the programs’ numbers rebound if respondents are assured that students will have equal access to test prep. The New York Post reported earlier this year on an education-reform organization’s findings that almost 80 percent of New Yorkers would want to preserve selective testing at the city’s elite high schools if it were combined with free access to test-preparation coaching for disadvantaged groups. (The organization is supported by Ron Lauder, the cosmetics heir and Bronx Science graduate, and Richard Parsons, a former CEO of Citigroup and economic adviser to President Barack Obama.) The New York City Council is currently considering a bill that would fund just such test prep for all middle-school students. Adams, the city’s likely mayor-in-waiting, has proposed expanding the number of selective high schools and guaranteeing more spots to top middle-schoolers from across the five boroughs. His fund-plus-reform policing formula may have secured him the Democratic nomination. In the same spirit, coach-expand-test may meet the wishes of urban voting publics.

But rather than expanding gifted programs, many self-proclaimed reformers are moving to shut them down, public opinion be damned. The intention behind the changes is equity. The result is to ignite a thousand local battles over race, class, and opportunity.

The supervisors who led the effort to end academically selective admissions at Lowell now face not only a recall campaign, but also a lawsuit from groups including the Asian American Legal Foundation. Accusations of bigotry have flowed both ways. In March, supporters of the old admissions system surfaced tweets by one of the school’s pro-lottery supervisors that accused Asian Americans of anti-Blackness. Black students at Lowell complain of racist incidents; an Asian American Lowell alum told of being bullied at another, less selective high school.

These are local issues—yet they are reshaping state and national politics. Last year, Californians voted on a proposition that would have allowed the restoration of affirmative action in college admissions, state employment, and state contracting. Proposition 16 was defeated by a margin of 57.2 percent to 42.8 percent in a state where non-Hispanic whites form only slightly more than one-third of the population.

In last year’s presidential election, Donald Trump appears to have done better with both Latino and Asian American voters than he did in 2016—and, if the NBC News exit poll is to be trusted, especially well among Asian American women. Of the three Korean American women in the U.S. House of Representatives, two are Republican. Their districts voted for Joe Biden for president, but rejected his party in Congress.

“Defund the police” was more slogan than policy. It originated on the fringe of the Democratic Party, and did not bring much in the way of real-world change before it got squashed. The academic-equity movement, by sharp contrast, splits the Democratic coalition from top to bottom—Proposition 16 was endorsed by California Governor Gavin Newsom—and it is already affecting millions of families.

Opponents of academic testing as an admissions tool point to its negative impact on African American applicants. As Isabel Wilkerson observes in her book Caste, such tests measure not only the potential of the individual student but also the consequences of centuries of degradation over a dozen generations before the student was even conceived. How is it tenable that a school supported by the taxes of all taxpayers would accept only eight Black students in a freshman class of 749, as happened at New York’s Stuyvesant this spring?

But that argument resonates most strongly with those Americans whose grandparents received the benefit of the harm done to the grandparents of others. It resonates much less with newer Americans and their children, who are on their way to becoming the national majority.

It’s often observed that the Republican Party has lost touch with 21st-century America. But Democrats, too, need to absorb that the country has changed in ways inhospitable to some of their long-established commitments and priorities.

Donald Trump practiced backward-looking politics: “Make America great again.” He promised to restore the culture of the 1950s and the economy of the ’60s, to a soundtrack of the disco hits of the ’70s. He provoked his opponents to look backwards too. They saw in him a replica of racist demagogues from the American past, from Andrew Johnson to George Wallace. But with Trump off the scene—at least for the time being, maybe forever—the future can come into view.

America has remade itself demographically. One in four American children is the child of at least one immigrant parent. Fewer than half of American children are non-Hispanic white. The United States will be a new country; it will have a new politics. Neither party seems ready for the shock.