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3 members of the San Francisco School Board are facing a recall

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

San Francisco is often seen as one of the most liberal cities in the nation. But tomorrow, voters there will decide whether to recall three members of the school board for what their critics say is prioritizing progressive politics above the needs of children.

From member station KQED, Scott Shafer reports.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: In the early months of the pandemic, San Francisco's school board spent hours discussing a controversial plan to strip the names off 44 schools. Included on the list were ones named for slave-owning president George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, due to his treatment of Native Americans. The topic was a gold mine for conservative outlets like Fox News.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Cancel culture may be common for some of the biggest names in American history as an advisory committee in San Francisco...

SHAFER: But it wasn't just conservatives who took issue with the school board's priorities. Mayor London Breed was also furious the board wasn't focused on reopening schools shuttered by the pandemic.

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LONDON BREED: I am upset. I am mad. I need them to get their act together. We shouldn't even be having a conversation about anything else.

SHAFER: Breed spoke for many parents frustrated that their kids were still struggling to learn on Zoom. But to school board members like Alison Collins, prioritizing racial equity was exactly why they were elected.

ALISON COLLINS: We need to make celebration of Black history, Asian history, Latinx history - all of those histories should be celebrated in our curriculum.

SHAFER: The pandemic upended those priorities. After an uproar, the school board voted unanimously to scrap the renaming plan. But for some, the whole controversy was the last straw, and a recall effort began with help from wealthy supporters of charter schools, which the San Francisco School Board has resisted.

MATT GONZALEZ: I think this particular recall is unique.

SHAFER: The recall also got support from San Francisco liberals, including Matt Gonzalez, a former city supervisor and Green Party member. He says it would be a mistake to portray the recall as a retreat from the city's liberal values.

GONZALEZ: I think it has specific reasons why it's happening. And I think it's a single point of unity between some of us on the left and some on the right.

SHAFER: The recall also has racial dimensions. All three board members facing removal are people of color. The city's Chinese community is actively engaged in the recall after the board suddenly voted to end a merit-based admission system for the city's most elite high school, where a majority of the students are Asian. The board replaced the merit system with a lottery. One parent leader of the recall campaign, Ann Hsu, is angry at what she sees as the school board's misplaced priorities.

ANN HSU: I think all the things that they're trying to do, like renaming schools - these are all politics. They really don't have much to do with education.

SHAFER: The recall exposes differences in how the city's values should be implemented, says political scientist Jason McDaniel of San Francisco State University.

JASON MCDANIEL: It's also, I think - does reflect some of the tensions within San Francisco liberalism and what it means to be liberal in San Francisco - agreed-upon values, values of equality, especially racial equality, but also some tensions over how to manifest those values.

SHAFER: But the recall is less about politics and more about competence, says San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

BREED: It does it a disservice to minimalize it and say that it's about, you know, liberal and progressive and all these various values. I mean, we need to start refocusing our efforts on making sure that people understand how important our children are and prioritizing that.

SHAFER: If any school board member is recalled, the mayor will name their replacements.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOBY TRANTER'S "SNOWY MOUNTAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer