San Francisco voters send Democrats a warning on schools

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

SAN FRANCISCO — Three members of the San Francisco school board closely linked to a divisive equity agenda were expelled from office on Tuesday, in an election that had been closely watched for its national implications.

Although the recall process that led to their removal is an unusual feature of California politics, the results of the referendum are sure to reverberate at a time when education has emerged as a top voter concern.

“San Francisco today has shown us what it means to be progressive,” said Siva Raj, a San Francisco parent who had helped organize the recall, at an election night party that saw diverse segments of the city’s fractured political landscape come together in a shared discontent with educational policy.

A pedestrian walks past a San Francisco Unified School District office building.
A San Francisco Unified School District office building. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Cheers erupted as results came in shortly before 9 p.m., with voters voting in near-identical 3-to-1 margins to recall board President Gabriela López (74.89 percent) and members Alison Collins (78.54 percent) and Faauuga Moliga (72.04 percent).

The three were accused of engaging in symbolic crusades while doing little to help students struggling with remote schooling and other pandemic-related challenges, such as social isolation. “Competence matters, even for progressives,” went the headline of a San Francisco Chronicle editorial in favor of the recall.

Moliga had sought to separate himself from Collins, who had come under fire for anti-Asian tweets, and López, who was widely derided for a New Yorker interview in which she failed to articulate why a school named after Abraham Lincoln needed to be renamed, but his effort did not succeed. Nor did a broader attempt to paint the recall as a Republican ploy to subvert and disrupt the city’s famously liberal consensus.

“This Board of Education focused on issues that weren’t about dealing with the immediate crisis of the day, and they didn’t show the leadership that that was necessary and that parents needed to hear, and that kids needed to hear,” city Supervisor Hillary Ronen told the Chronicle. Mayor London Breed, a Democrat who came out in favor of the recall, will now appoint replacements for the trio.

Fury with López, Collins and Moliga built throughout 2021, as they and other school board members showed little evident interest in reopening the city’s schools for in-person instruction, instead focusing on an ultimately doomed effort to rename schools named after Lincoln and Daniel Webster, as well as figures from history who had owned slaves, engaged in colonial conquests or taken political positions now seen as problematic.

A sign at Lowell High School in San Francisco reads: We will miss you.
A sign at Lowell High School in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Perhaps more controversially, the board moved to diversify the city’s elite Lowell High School by implementing a lottery instead of academic entrance exams. The move angered San Francisco’s large and politically active Chinese American community, which had long seen Lowell as a beacon of promise.

Posters in favor of the recall were plastered across Chinatown ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “They seem to have their eyes on the wrong thing — the wrong priorities,” community activist Bayard Fong told Yahoo News of the board members.

A judge ultimately nullified the change to Lowell’s admissions.

The board earned national mockery for an hours-long meeting in which it debated whether a gay father would add sufficient diversity to a parental advisory board.

Last November, San Francisco voters decided to move forward with a recall of the three board members and of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who is facing similar headwinds for progressive policies that critics say have made the city less safe. Boudin’s recall election will be held in June.

Tuesday’s results were “proof that San Franciscans are fed up with officials who are derelict in their duties,” tweeted Brooke Jenkins, a former San Francisco prosecutor who has emerged as a prominent Boudin critic.

The apparent shift in San Francisco politics could be a concerning bellwether for Democrats, with bitter divisions emerging between progressives and moderates on education and public safety — the very issues that are the focus of the city’s recall elections.

A kindergarten teacher sets up his classroom.
Chris Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at Bryant Elementary School in San Francisco, sets up his classroom in April 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

That same discontent evidenced on Tuesday with López, Collins and Moliga could reverberate in November’s midterm elections, when Republicans are likely to attack Democrats for keeping schools closed for much of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools are now open across the country, but divisions continue about masking, curricula, protections for transgender students and other hot-button issues.

“The unified parents throughout San Francisco are speaking loudly,” Jenkins told Yahoo News. She later appeared at the election night party, which saw local dad “Gaybraham” Lincoln posing for photographs and supporters of the recall buzzing with excitement over a vote they predicted — correctly — would go in their favor.