Education versus racial equity: Siva Raj, others lead campaign to recall San Francisco school board members

Siva Raj in April collects signatures for an effort to recall three San Francisco school board members. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly ousted three school board members from their positions Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in a move 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 this year. The results in San Francisco are another warning sign for Democrats.

Preliminary results showed the vote to oust each of the school board members topping 70%. Those who lost their seats were school board President Gabriela López and members Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga.

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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 moves aimed at advancing racial equity that critics say were divisive and ill-advised, particularly for a period when schools were closed and academic and emotional damage to the city’s children was accruing. For instance, the board spent months deliberating the renaming of 44 schools after a committee found their namesakes had connections to slavery, oppression and racism, although many of the alleged ties were thin or, in some cases, historically questionable or inaccurate. Those targeted included George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and, citing a single incident from the 1980s, longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

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 as well as others in the Asian community, who read the change as hurtful to students from their community who worked hard and got the top grades and scores.

Other city leaders were frustrated, too. The schools superintendent quit and was persuaded to come back only by board members agreeing, in writing, to focus on reopening schools. Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, endorsed the recall campaign, saying it was important that the school board not become “distracted by unnecessary influences or political agendas.”

The leaders of the recall movement said the vote showed a hunger for schools to focus on educating children.

“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 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 other four members of the existing school board could not be recalled because they had been elected too recently.

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, asserted that the change was anti-Asian. They also argued that it would water down the academic standards that had made the school a superb place for learning.

Anger was further driven 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 Taskforce, 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. The school district has struggled with its finances, running a deficit.

President Joe Biden won 86% of the vote in liberal San Francisco, a place with relatively few school-age children and where schools are not typically a big part of city politics. But the school board’s actions alienated voters who agreed with an increasingly common criticism 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 began, the Virginia governor’s race showed the power of education as a political issue when Republican Glenn Youngkin won with a heavy emphasis on the issues of school closures and race.

In San Francisco, the debate was driven not by Republicans or conservatives. It played out within the Democratic party. Still, it offers a cautionary tale for Democrats if voters see them as putting too much emphasis on covid restrictions or favoring racial equity initiatives over the fundamentals of education.

In a memo following the Virginia election for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, political consultant Brian Stryker warned that Democrats are vulnerable on education, particularly as it relates to the perception that they favored school closings.

“We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not,” he wrote.

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.”

At the White House Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment directly on the San Francisco results but emphasized Biden’s support for open schools.

“We understand where parents are coming from when they want schools to be open as well,” she said. “And the president recognizes the mental health impact it has on kids for them not to be open.”

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