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Tech’s latest disruption target: San Francisco’s Board of Education

For years, aspiring tech moguls have moved to San Francisco and brought ideas like “move fast and break things” to disrupt a myriad of traditional industries. Now, many local techies have set their sights on a new sector: local politics, starting with the Feb. 15 Board of Education recall

Early recall contribution data analyzed by The Standard shows an unusually large amount of contributions coming in from the tech industry for the school board recall compared to other elections. Three school board members—Gabriela LópezAlison Collins and Faauuga Moliga—are facing recall.

According to The Standard's analysis of currently available campaign finance data, “engineer” and similar technical roles are the most common occupation for employed contributors to the recall, comprising 134 contributors, or 22% of total employed contributors. The second-most popular occupation was non-executive, non-technical business roles, comprising 80 contributors. The most common company that contributors work for is Google. 

By contrast, forms of “engineer” made up just 2.3% of contributions to all candidates in the 2018 Board of Education election.

Non-tech workers still make up the majority of employed contributors to the recall, with 57% of working at non-tech organizations and 43% working for tech companies. Overall, there were 886 contributors, of which 280 did not disclose an employer, mostly due to being retired.

Tech workers say the Board of Education recall has prompted an awakening about local politics.

“I used to stay in my lane and build things to help people, and let politicians do their thing,” said Dwight Crow, founder of Whisper, a Sequoia Capital-backed tech company with 75 employees, who also starred on the 2012 Bravo show Start-ups: Silicon Valley. “But a huge trigger for me was what happened with Lowell High School, and seeing a real attempt to remove meritocracy in an underhanded way. It was awful. School is arguably the most important thing our local government does. It feels like we’re just fucking it up very badly.”

The Board last year voted to end the admissions test for Lowell, the city's elite public high school, in favor of a lottery, though a court has blocked the move on the grounds that the proper procedures were not followed.

Crow, an SF resident who has lived in the Bay Area for 18 years, has contributed $1,500 to the recall. It’s his first time contributing to a local campaign.

The recall contributor roster spans the tech worker hierarchy. Notable donors include Silicon Valley kingmaker Paul Graham, who founded the startup factory Y Combinator, and venture capitalists Brook Byers of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Garry Tan of Initialized Capital. But many of the smaller contributions are coming from non-executive tech employees, who in addition to holding positions like “frontend mobile app developer” and “software engineer,” list a range of other positions unique to the tech industry such as “UX writer” and “customer solutions engineer" and “angel investor.”

Education is near and dear to techies, many of whom are dedicated to the belief that given sufficient opportunities to take advanced math and science classes, a person from any walk of life can become a successful tech worker with a six-figure salary. In particular, they take issue with San Francisco’s decision to put all 8th grade students into one non-algebra math class instead of splitting students into those who are ready for algebra and those who aren’t--a move the state is now considering too.

But the board members facing recall have opposed Lowell High School’s merit-based admissions process as unjust and even racist. Critics say that while merit may seem to indicate fairness, it actually reinforces society’s gulf between the haves and have nots because wealthier families will find ways to ensure their children qualify for the best merit-based schools.

Still, many engineers say it’s embarrassing that the tech capital of the world won’t offer talented students more advanced STEM classes.

“Public education is one of the most important things for a well-run, prosperous society,” said Steven Buss, who quit his engineering job at Google to focus on GrowSF, his social advocacy organization for San Francisco-based issues. “Anyone in engineering feels that way. We are where we are because of education.”

Buss said that Collins’ tweets about Asian students are another reason there may be more tech workers contributing to the recall, because Asians are more likely to hold technical jobs.

Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, the parents behind the recall campaign, say they are running the campaign using lessons they learned from the startup world.

“You try things, and then scale up the things that work well," said Looijen, underscoring the importance of "constantly measuring what’s working and what’s not.”

Looijen and Raj’s story of the early days of the recall echo the mythical founding stories of many a tech company: armed with an idea but with no connections and no money, they worked hard until they created something that customers wanted badly and started to gain “market traction.” 

“Now we can go to donors and say the words every startup wants to say: we’ve got this thing figured out, we just need you to pour on the cash,” said Looijen.

Of course, many are not welcoming the tech workers’ newfound interest in local politics and recalls. Shanti Singh, a local community organizer who has worked on behalf of tenants and the Democratic Socialists of America, says a successful recall would signal to moneyed interests that they can oust any politician they disagree with.

“My worry, and why I’m against the recall on principle, is that this might be the beginning of an effort to silence anyone with a left perspective on social issues, and to discourage people from running for office,” said Singh, who has also held various positions in the tech industry. “This could be the beginning of something like recalling every supervisor who they disagree with.”

About the Data

The Standard analyzed the existing data for the Board of Education recall contributions, which is available on the San Francisco Ethics Commission website here. When individuals contribute to political campaigns, committees and recalls, they must fill out information that becomes publicly available, including their employer and occupation. Currently, that information is available for individuals contributing at least $100 total to the recall before mid-September 2021 (though the recall may optionally make disclosures for smaller contributors as well), and is available within 24 hours for contributions above $1,000. On Feb. 1, more up-to-date data will be available for the $100-and-above contributors. Since this information is self-reported by the contributor, The Standard sanitized the available data and created its own occupation categories.