The parents of San Francisco have spoken, and their message is echoing like a wake-up call across the country.
Fueled by pandemic frustration, parents launched a recall of three school board members that ended Tuesday with a landslide victory. It’s the latest salvo against school districts in the pandemic and could also be a warning for Democrats nationwide.
Like many parents in San Francisco, Kit Lam watched his two children sink into depression over a year of remote learning. It motivated him to join other parents collecting signatures for the recall.
“As a parent, you see your children suffering, and it hurts you," he said Wednesday. “The universal sentiment I see is that everyone is so angry. Everyone needs to channel their frustration. And that's what we did."
More than 70% of voters supported the recall of School Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga and Commissioner Alison Collins, according to returns from the San Francisco Department of Elections.
What happened in San Francisco was both unique and similar to what is taking place around the country. Nationwide, parents have voiced discontent over lengthy pandemic school closures and the extended effects of distance learning on their children’s mental and academic health.
That was the seed of the recall in San Francisco, where two parents launched the effort in January 2021 after the school board kept schools closed. San Francisco public schools took longer to reopen than most in the country, and almost all of the district's 50,000 students stayed in distance learning until the fall.
Meanwhile, the school board spent its time on what many critics called misplaced priorities, including a months-long effort to rename 44 schools instead of focusing on reopening them.
Parents and other residents of San Francisco, one of the most liberal cities in America, do not dispute the need to reexamine the historical figures schools are named for, but the effort was criticized for poor research, historical inaccuracies and bad timing. It became one of several examples critics cited of the board putting progressive politics over the needs of children.
Another divisive issue was the board’s decision to end merit-based admissions to the city’s elite Lowell High School as part of a broader push for equity and inclusion. It cited “pervasive systemic racism” and a lack of diversity at Lowell, one of the country’s top public high schools, where the majority of students are Asian. A court ultimately reversed the decision because the board had violated California's open meetings law.
It was one of multiple lawsuits against the Board of Education, including one from the city of San Francisco, which took the dramatic step of suing the school district and the board to push for a quicker reopening. After public uproar, the board also scrapped the school renaming plan.
“This came from parents who were upset and frustrated and stressed out,” said Mayor London Breed, who supported the recall. “These were people who were pushing and fighting for their children. I can’t say that enough.”
Breed will now appoint board replacements to serve until the next election, which she said will take several weeks.
The pressures of the pandemic and distance learning have merged with politics nationwide, making school board races a new front in a culture war as resentments over COVID-19 rules and more inclusive curricula reach a boiling point. Republicans are increasingly looking to education as a galvanizing issue that could help them sway voters.
House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said the San Francisco vote was the latest illustration of liberal ideals losing ground.
“Parents are standing up to have their voices heard. Over the past two years, they have watched liberal school boards in their communities prioritize renaming schools over re-opening classrooms,” McCarthy said in a statement.
He compared it to the upset Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, pulled off last November in the liberal-leaning state after basing his campaign on pandemic closures and fears of a more diverse curriculum. Other conservative political action groups said they racked up wins in the school board races where they funneled money.
The political tracking website Ballotpedia identified 96 school districts in more than a dozen states where race in education and masks were part of the debate in 2021.
Many see that as a prelude for this November’s midterm elections, pointing to the example of San Francisco, a famously tolerant city that lost its patience when progressive politics took priority over pandemic needs.
“Parents of all political stripes have emerged as one of the most potent forces in campaigns and elections today, and woe to anyone seen as standing in the way of their kids’ education," Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Z. Barabak wrote Wednesday.
Added Lam, the San Francisco father: “No one is against progressive policies here. ... At a time of crisis we are looking for leaders to lead us through. But we were not seeing that in San Francisco.”