Voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly ousted three school board members from their positions Tuesday, fueled by a failure to reopen schools last year and unpopular moves aimed at advancing racial justice.
The recall election is the latest signal that voters, even in a liberal city like San Francisco, have grown frustrated with public schools during the pandemic. Education, particularly its struggles with coronavirus measures and racial justice, is expected to play a prominent role in elections across the country later this year. The results in San Francisco offer another warning sign for Democrats.
Preliminary results showed the vote to oust each of the school board members topping 70 percent. Those who lost their seats are school board president Gabriela López and members Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga.
The recall effort was initiated by a couple frustrated by the board’s failure to reopen schools last academic year. Even as other districts opened or developed hybrid in-person and remote systems, and as private schools in the area operated in person, San Francisco remained remote for nearly all students, who did not return until the fall.
At the same time, the board engaged in a series of divisive moves aimed at racial equity that critics say were ill-advised, particularly for a period when schools were closed and academic and emotional damage to the city’s children was accruing. For instance, it spent months deliberating the renaming of 44 schools after a committee found their namesakes had connections to slavery, oppression and racism, though many of the alleged ties were thin or, in some cases, historically questionable or inaccurate.
The board also argued that Lowell High School, an elite program populated overwhelmingly by Asian American and White students, needed an admissions system that would better represent the city’s Black and Hispanic residents. The board’s abrupt decision to alter the admission rules, switching to a lottery, incensed San Francisco’s large Chinese American population.
The leaders of the recall movement said the vote showed a hunger for schools to focus on educating children.
Other city leaders were frustrated, too. The superintendent quit and was persuaded to come back only after board members agreed, in writing, to focus on reopening schools. Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, endorsed the recall campaign, saying it was important the school board not become “distracted by unnecessary influences or political agendas.”
“In this deeply divided city, in this deeply divided country, it shows that there are some things we can all agree on. Competent leadership. Good public schools. Protecting our most disadvantaged kids,” Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen, who launched the recall effort, said in a statement Wednesday.
Breed, who endorsed the recall campaign, will appoint replacements for the ousted school board members.
“Our kids have suffered tremendously during this pandemic,” she said in a statement after the results. “It’s time we refocus our efforts on the basics of providing quality education for all students.”
The decision to change admissions criteria for Lowell High School proved enormously controversial. Admissions to the Lowell under the lottery increased representation among Black and Hispanic students.
But critics of the decision, including many alumni and parents at the school, charged that it was anti-Asian. They also argued it would water down the academic standards that had made the school an extraordinary place for learning.
Anger was further fueled by anti-Asian tweets from Collins that were posted in 2016, before she was on the board, but discovered last year. They accused Asian Americans of benefiting from the “‘model minority’ BS” and using “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ” She also suggested that they were not standing up to President Donald Trump, using a racial slur to describe them.
The school board voted to strip Collins of her position as vice president, and Collins responded by suing the school board, producing further turmoil that was unrelated to the education of children.
The Chinese American Democratic Club urged voters to support the recall. The election, unlike many others in the city, appeared to galvanize Asian voters. Ann Hsu, a parent and organizer with the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Task Force, said the vote was a repudiation of anti-Asian actions. She pointed to the Lowell decision and said the board had “bulldozed over our concerns.”
“The recalled School Board members are paying the price of their actions that were blatantly discriminatory towards the AAPI community,” she said.
Yet another controversy that engulfed the board concerned its effort to paint over Depression-era murals considered offensive to Black and Native Americans. Eventually the board agreed to conceal but not destroy the historical murals.
President Biden won 86 percent of the vote in liberal San Francisco. But the school board’s actions alienated voters who agreed with an increasingly common critique of the left that it worked too hard on racial equity measures and not hard enough on meliorating the toll of the pandemic on schools and children.
The leaders of the recall movement, Raj and Looijen, fueled the sense that they were making common cause with conservatives when they appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio show in a segment about parents pushing back against schools, drawing criticism at home.
Months after the recall effort launched, the Virginia governor’s race showed the power of education as a political issue when Republican Glenn Youngkin won with a heavy emphasis on school closures and race.
Jenny Lam, a San Francisco school board member who was not subject to the recall, suggested in a statement that the election was a wake-up call. “With this evening’s election, we change course. We now must move forward to focus our energy back on our students and our schools.”