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SF public schools get middling grades in new poll, with worse marks from parents

Students participate during Mr. Richard Moore’s science class at John O’Connell High School in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, August 17, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Franciscans surveyed in the new Standard Voter Poll are not particularly satisfied with the city’s public schools—and the sentiment is worse among parents. 

Just 31% of respondents strongly or somewhat approve of San Francisco Unified School District’s performance, down from 39% in May. That leaves 69% who strongly or somewhat disapprove of the city’s public schools, compared with 61% in May. 

Among parents surveyed, the net approval rating—the gap between approval and disapproval—comes in at a -52%. SFUSD parents hold a slightly more favorable (but still overall bleak) view of the schools, showing a net approval rating of -44%.

“Public schools have failed SF families and now the city doesn’t feel or look safe for kids either,” one respondent wrote. “It breaks my heart.”

The Standard poll surveyed 944 registered voters in San Francisco in English and Simplified Chinese, representing voters within a margin of error of +/–3.9%. Embold Research conducted the poll from Oct. 1 to 7.

Middling reviews come in the aftermath of a bruising pandemic, one that has left schools to grapple with heightened mental and behavioral health issues as well as learning loss among students, steep staffing shortages and declining enrollment. 

Tensions in SFUSD discourse also grew during the pandemic, erupting with the recall of three board members—Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga—in February. Mayor London Breed appointed three new members—Lainie Motamedi, Lisa Weissman-Ward and Ann Hsu, the latter one of who has been met with controversy over remarks she made about struggling students—and who are up for election in November.

Some grievances voiced by poll respondents related more to the politics of SFUSD and its Board of Education rather than the schools themselves. 

“I’m proud of our public schools, and equally unhappy with Alison Collins and Ann Hsu,” one respondent wrote. 

Since the recall, under new Superintendent Matt Wayne and Board of Education President Jenny Lam, SFUSD leaders have vowed to focus solely on student outcomes. But with poll respondents this month expressing a slightly more negative outlook of SFUSD leadership since May, the path ahead looks to be a long one. 

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick acknowledged as much in a statement to The Standard.

“The past two years have been an incredibly difficult time for students and educators everywhere, and San Francisco is no exception,” she said. 

But there are bright spots, Dudnick added.

“We also know that San Francisco schools have plenty to offer, and we are proud that we have long been seen as a nationwide leader in many areas, from computer science to LGBTQ studies to incorporating anti-racist teaching practices into the classroom,” Dudnick said. “SFUSD is committed to being responsive to the types of school experiences our students and families want.”

The local poll results match sentiments among all Californians, 42% of whom said in a Public Policy Institute of California survey earlier this year that they think the quality of K-12 education has gotten worse. At the same time, roughly half of Californians think the funding for local public schools is insufficient. 

“I’m still astonished and horrified that this city has incredible wealth that is not being used to clean up the streets of debris/graffiti, actually provide lasting solutions for homelessness and especially (worst) not pour resources into making public schools a great place for kids and staff alike,” wrote a Standard poll respondent who raised two children in San Francisco. “This can never be a world class city without addressing these issues in significant and enduring ways.”

Another respondent expressed concern about navigating the elementary school lottery system to find a safe school close to home while another plainly stated that San Francisco needs to desegregate its schools. SFUSD is in the process of changing its student assignment system based on zones in an effort to simplify the process and diversify each campus, which would be enacted in the 2026-27 school year.  

Half of SFUSD parents surveyed by The Standard are in favor of noncitizen parents voting in school board elections, while 47% of parents approve. The figures show stronger support in the parent community than registered among SF voters overall, only 41% of whom back this policy.

Liz Lindqwister contributed additional research for this story.