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National debate rages over what the SF school board recall was ‘really about’

Siva Raj (left) and Autumn Looijen speak during a press conference held by the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce on the steps of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2021. | Photo by Beth LaBerge for KQED

San Francisco is an early-adopter kind of place, and Tuesday’s lopsided vote to recall the school board was among the first of what could become a wave of school board recalls around the country, according to Ballotpedia.

Landing amid heated debates around the country over social justice issues and numerous aspects of education policy, the vote is drawing an avalanche of commentary about the significance of a low-turnout special election that saw voters unseat all three commissioners by 40-point margins.

The Standard breaks down the arguments about what the school board recall was “really about.”

It’s the first sign of an ‘anti-woke’ movement that’s going to upend San Francisco politics and make waves in November’s midterms

The digital ink was hardly dry on the city’s election results website when the national stories started raining down on what the recall meant for this year’s midterm elections.

Some national media figures see the results as a harbinger of doom for Democrats. If America’s most progressive city is fed up with social-justice politics, that can only mean the tide has turned nationally–and hard–against policies that proponents say are critical components of a racial reckoning, but which critics dismiss as “wokeness” run wild.

This theory will be tested well before November. On June 7, San Francisco voters will head to the polls for yet another recall, this time for District Attorney Chesa Boudin. A controversial figure because of his belief in restorative justice and willingness to prosecute police officers, his tenure as DA has coincided with a seismic shift in public opinion on the role of policing as well as a perceived rise in crime.

The school board vote showed how a small but impassioned bloc of voters can make a decisive difference in a low-turnout election. If it does in fact signal a broader shift against progressive politics, that's very bad news for Boudin.

It doesn't have any ramifications for national politics. It’s simply a story of extreme incompetence and misplaced priorities during COVID

A common local view is that the recall wasn’t a referendum on progressive politics at all. It was simply about the school board’s litany of blunders: the failure to re-open schools or provide good remote learning options during Covid; the district’s huge budget deficit; the renaming debacle, where the board voted to remove the names of many historical figures with minimal research; and a mishandled effort to end special admissions policies at Lowell High School. Even local progressive stalwarts such as Clara Jeffery, editor-in-chief of Mother Jones, attributed the vote to extreme incompetence on the part of the school board rather than any broader political statement.

Failure to reopen schools while continuing to pursue social justice initiatives is often cited as the central failing in this view.  

On Sunday, London Breed went on Meet the Press and spoke in support of the misplaced-priorities theory.

“They were focusing on things that were clearly a distraction,” she said. “What was most important was that our kids were not in the classroom.” 

It was billionaires in Silicon Valley buying an election

The recall committee was allowed to accept unlimited dollar amounts from donors, making it more akin to a super PAC than a traditional political campaign, where contributions are capped. Many who opposed the recall say it was a billionaire “power grab” by wealthy techies, including early Apple investor Arthur Rock and former PayPal COO David Sacks, who together contributed almost $500,000. The ultimate agenda here, critics say, is to promote charter schools and weaken teacher's unions, possibly with the help of moderate city politicians.

But recall supporters say that a focus on big donors drowns out the fact that the recall was a grassroots effort from the start, and an earlier Standard analysis found that over 80 percent of recall supporters live in San Francisco.

It’s about punishing POCs for pursuing social justice and an unpopular school renaming effort that actually originated with a white guy

The recalled school board members, who were all people of color, say they were unfairly blamed.

“The issue that I am pointing to is when that comes from people of color, primarily women of color, that is enough of a problem to silence us,” Gabriela López, one of the recalled commissioners, told local news station KRON4 last week.

The push to rename schools, widely cited in the national media and mocked as political correctness run amok, initially came from Supervisor Matt Haney when he was on the school board back in 2016. Haney was on the same ballot as the school board recall, running for state assembly, but the issue barely came up during his campaign and he finished first in the primary.

It’s what happens when Asian parents think you’re messing with their childrens’ education

Several popular explanations revolve around the Asian American vote. Asians traditionally don’t vote as frequently as other ethnic groups in San Francisco, but one issue that clearly triggered the city’s large Chinese American and other Asian communities was the board’s move to change admissions criteria at Lowell High School from a “merit-based” system, which many Blacks and Latinos say is discriminatory, to a lottery. Admission to the elite high school, which has been majority white and Asian for many years, is seen as an important milestone for Asian parents at all income levels in San Francisco. A New York Times editorial called the recall “What happens when angry Asian parents get organized.”

Asian American parents were further alienated when Tweets from Alison Collins, one of the recalled school board members. surfaced in which she criticized Asian Americans for collaborating with whites in failing to combat anti-Black racism. 

Collins was unapologetic after the vote, drawing parallels to historic civil rights battles and calling the move to change Lowell’s admissions policy a form of desegregation. 

It’s about getting Critical Race Theory supporters off the school board 

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, jumped into the debate, saying that the school board recall was not only about keeping Black and Latino students out of Lowell, it was also part-and-parcel of a broader conservative effort to remove supporters of Critical Race Theory (CRT) from schools. CRT has become a code word for anti-racism teachings and now features prominently in campaigns to ban books and limit what teachers can say in the classroom.