San Francisco voters oust school board members over handling of COVID protocols

A school board election in San Francisco is highlighting the political fallout from COVID school closures, even in a city long-considered politically progressive. San Francisco voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly recalled three school board members, the first recall election to take place there in 40 years. Scott Shafer, politics editor for KQED in San Francisco, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A school board election in San Francisco is highlighting the political fallout from COVID school closures, even in a city long considered politically progressive.

    San Francisco voters yesterday overwhelmingly recalled three of its seven school board members.

    Stephanie Sy has more.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, this is the first recall election in San Francisco in 40 years. At the heart of was strong opposition to the amount of time San Francisco's public school students were out of the classroom, doing remote learning during the pandemic.

    Here's what one parent had to say:

  • Woman:

    Kids had only about six weeks of in-class instruction last year, I mean, before summer break. So, that is a huge loss when it comes to kids who are coming from difficult socioeconomic situations.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But the board also became the target of controversy, as it prioritized equity issues, critics would say, over educational imperatives.

    To help us understand what's happening, I'm joined by politics editor Scott Shafer with KQED in San Francisco.

    Scott, thank you so much for joining us.

    All three school board members that were eligible to be recalled were by more than 70 percent of voters, Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga.

    Was this a direct result of the length of the school closures? Was that a sentiment shared by a lot of the voters?

  • Scott Shafer, KQED:

    Well, as we have seen around the country, school districts have been grappling with how to reopen and when to reopen, how quickly to reopen, how to do it safely.

    And I think, in San Francisco, we saw most cities, including many in California, doing that while we were still closed here in the city. And that led to a lot of frustration. Most people don't pay much attention to school boards. But the pandemic really upended a lot of that, and there was a lot of frustration from parents in terms of their — how they felt about their kids learning on Zoom, mental health issues.

    And so, even as some parents, especially working-class parents, weren't that eager to open the classes too quickly, a lot of parents felt it's really overdue. And so that certainly was sort of an underpinning of this recall.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, as you said, as schools started to reopen, parents who were worried about learning loss and getting their kids back to normalcy were focused on that.

    But the school board, I understand, decided to put things like renaming dozens of schools on its agenda. What was behind that? Why did they do that?

  • Scott Shafer:

    Well, we should say that all three of the school board members who were recalled yesterday ran on an equity platform. They talked — this is before the pandemic — they talked about changing policies in San Francisco schools to help Black and brown kids in particular, who struggle often in San Francisco schools.

    And so, in a sense, they were doing what they were elected to do. But the pandemic just totally upended those priorities.

    And so when you see — when parents saw the school board spending six, seven hours talking about renaming schools, including Abraham Lincoln, and one named after Dianne Feinstein, I think there began to get a lot of focus on the school board, and what are they doing? What are they prioritizing? Why aren't they focused on reopening the schools?

    And the mayor, London Breed, had a lot to say about that too. And I think that drew a lot of attention to these three in particular.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, of course, London Breed was somebody who supported the recall of these three members.

    Another flash point, Scott, that I know emerged around a policy that had to do with equity was to remove the merit-based admissions to a particular public high school in the city that was highly selective, affected a lot of Chinese American students. This is also a move progressives in cities like New York are moving toward to promote diversity and equity.

    Which group of parents in San Francisco really galvanized around that issue? And how much did that affect the turnout for the recall?

  • Scott Shafer:

    Well, Lowell High School is an elite high school, Stephen Breyer, Justice Stephen Breyer is one of many illustrious graduates.

    And I think it's — a lot of parents see getting into Lowell as key to sort of sling — giving their kids a slingshot into college and into life. The school is more than half — it's a majority Asian American. And often, when you change a policy, people who are benefiting from the status quo don't like it.

    And so, certainly, the Chinese American community in particular was mobilized and energized. And I should say that, at the same time, there were Asian American students who did support those changes, as well as Black and brown students and organizations like the NAACP.

    So it wasn't uniform. But I think, to answer your question, clearly, the group that was most energized by this and most upset was the Chinese community.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What do these school board politics in San Francisco, Scott, tell us about how education in general during the pandemic, even in the national picture, may be splitting Democratic voters, I mean, San Francisco being a bastion of progressive politics?

  • Scott Shafer:

    Well, I don't think — I think it would be a mistake to read the results of this election as San Francisco retreating from its core values.

    I don't think voters are saying they no longer support things like diversity and equity and civil rights. I don't think that was the message. But, clearly, parents were saying, pay attention to our kids. That should be your priority. We want the schools reopened. We're fine talking about renaming schools and changing admission policies, but not right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic.

    And I think that's really the message is, do the job in front of you. And then, when things settle down, when we're more or less back to normal, perhaps we can talk about these other issues, which are important. And I think — I don't think anyone is saying they're not important. It's just a matter of timing, priority and process.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Scott Shafer with KQED in San Francisco following a story that is being watched nationally.

    Scott, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Scott Shafer:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

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