What Happened in the San Francisco School Board Recall Elections?

by Ryan Matsumoto March 4, 2022 · 10:49 AM EST

SAN FRANCISCO- In February, San Francisco voters received some national attention when they overwhelmingly recalled three members of the city’s school board. Per final results, Alison Collins was recalled with 76 percent of the vote, Gabriela López was recalled with 72 percent of the vote, and Faauuga Moliga was recalled with 69 percent of the vote.

Several key issues dominated the recall effort. First, many parents were frustrated with remote learning and how San Francisco schools remained closed until fall of 2021, much later than most of the country. Compounding this frustration was the school board’s efforts to rename dozens of schools, including those named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Dianne Feinstein. The idea that the school board was more focused on renaming schools rather than reopening them became a key talking point for recall proponents. The school board was also criticized for poor budget management, a significant decline in public school enrollment, and general incompetence.

Another key issue was the change in admissions policy for the city’s prestigious Lowell High School. During the pandemic, the school board temporarily replaced a merit-based process based on test scores and grades with a lottery system. In February 2021, the board voted to make these changes permanent, though this was overturned by a judge in November. The board approved a resolution to keep the lottery system for the 2022-2023 school year, with the future up in the air. While one side has argued that the merit-based system was elitist and reinforced systemic racism resulting in low enrollment of Black and Hispanic students, the other side has argued that the new lottery-based system hurts Asian-American students, who have made up the plurality of Lowell students in recent years.

Another controversy was Collins’ racist tweets about Asian Americans from 2016. These tweets helped galvanize support and enthusiasm for the recall among the Asian-American community, especially in light of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes the last few years. The backlash to Collins’ tweets may help explain why more voters supported recalling her than her colleagues Lopez and Moliga. 

Some of the strongest support for the recall came from neighborhoods with high shares of Asian residents, according to official results.. While the Collins recall earned 76 percent support overall, it earned 85 percent support in Sunset, 82 percent support in Chinatown, 81 percent support in Richmond, 79 percent support in Visitacion Valley, and 78 percent support in Portola.

But it wasn’t just heavily Asian neighborhoods – several majority or plurality non-Hispanic white neighborhoods that are relatively moderate were highly supportive of the recall. In particular, the Collins recall earned 85 percent support in both Marina / Pacific Heights and West of Twin Peaks.

In fact, geographic support for the recall tended to correlate very well with the city’s previous voting patterns. In San Francisco, Republicans aren’t competitive (President Donald Trump got just 13 percent of the vote in 2020), so the main political divide is between “moderates” and “progressives.” Several months ago, San Francisco Chronicle’s Nami Sumida compiled data from local ballot initiatives to calculate each precinct’s “Progressive Voter Index.”

Ultimately, it was the city’s most progressive neighborhoods that were the least supportive of the recall. While the Collins recall still passed in every neighborhood, it earned below-average support in progressive bastions like Mission (60 percent), North Bernal Heights (63 percent), South Bernal Heights (67 percent), and Haight Ashbury (68 percent).

There are many potential reasons why moderate neighborhoods were more supportive of the recall than progressive neighborhoods. Moderate voters may have been more likely to favor a swift return to in-person learning, while progressive voters may have been more likely to favor remote learning because of COVID concerns. Moderate voters may also have been more likely to oppose the Lowell High School admissions changes than progressive voters because of differences in opinion on how to best achieve racial equity. And finally, some progressive voters may have been motivated to oppose the recall on the basis that it was funded by “big-money interests.”

The moderate-progressive divide on the recall also extended to endorsements from city politicians. Mayor London Breed, a moderate who defeated two more progressive challengers in 2018, endorsed recalling all three school board members. Another prominent supporter of the recall was state Sen. Scott Wiener, who was one of the most moderate San Francisco supervisors during his two terms. A prominent opponent of the recall was San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, who is arguably the most progressive member of the city’s Board of Supervisors.

While it can be tempting to draw sweeping conclusions about what the San Francisco school board recall means for national politics, it’s important to remember that many local issues were at play. As demonstrated by endorsements, the school board recall had significant support from the  moderate faction of the city’s Democratic establishment – this was not an election that could be neatly divided into a Democratic side and a Republican side. And it’s important to remember that this is the same San Francisco that voted 86 percent to 14 percent against the attempted recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom just a few months earlier.

Nonetheless, the San Francisco school board recall is an important reminder of the importance of education to voters. This could definitely be a key factor in November’s midterm elections and beyond.