On Tuesday, San Francisco residents voted overwhelmingly to recall three school board members—Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga, and Alison Collins—after roughly two years of strife over school pandemic policies, admissions procedures, and renaming buildings. About a third of the city’s population cast ballots, and all three recall measures passed with at least 72 percent of votes in favor on election night.* Critics of the board argued that its members weren’t focused enough on reinstating in-person classes and were instead distracted by controversial racial justice initiatives, such as a failed and partially ahistorical proposal to remove the names of figures like Abraham Lincoln and Paul Revere from a third of the city’s schools in the name of dismantling racism. Another contested issue during the campaign was the board’s decision to base admissions at the prestigious Lowell High School on a lottery rather than grades and test scores. A superior court judge found that the board violated state law by giving parents and students inadequate notice before making the change. Conservatives framed the recall as an omen for progressivism nationwide, though other commentators have noted that the issues at play were fairly specific to the city.
Why those three members? The other four members are not eligible for a recall, as they were elected last November.* López was the president of the board and had adamantly defended the renaming initiative, while Moliga was the vice president. Collins became the subject of public outrage after critics dug up crude tweets chastising Asian Americans that she posted before assuming her position.
Asian Americans in San Francisco, particularly those of Chinese descent, have become the public face of the recall effort, appearing frequently in media reports and rallies. A group called the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce claims that it was able to register 560 Asian American voters in its campaign to oust the board members while making the case for merit-based admissions and in-person classes. To get more insight into the role of Asian Americans in the election, I spoke to Bayard Fong, who serves as president of San Francisco’s Chinese American Democratic Club, which donated funds and bought ads to support the recall. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: Why do you think we saw so much Asian American involvement in this recall effort?
Bayard Fong: Education has always been dear to our heart for all of our communities. We’ve worked really hard on this. This era—this last 10, 15, 20 years in San Francisco—the education system has been getting tattered by a lot of stuff. It looked like it was the de-emphasizing of quality education, the de-emphasizing of classes that students could handle. Some kids are gifted. Some kids have higher sharpness or ability to do math, English reading and writing, or any other talents. All kids come from different backgrounds, all kids have different talents and skills that they are born with, but you’ve got to give them, regardless of ethnicity, the highest-caliber [education] to grow to their full potential. A lot of us felt that it was taking away a lot of that opportunity for maximizing potential.
What was the board doing that you think was hurting Asian Americans?
Number one is the process and procedures. You represent 54,000 students, 40 percent happen to be Asian, Pacific Islanders, but you don’t give them participation in the process. They make comments, they feel ignored. … The other part that aggravates us all is they took action, but no one did an investigation. They took action to try to remove the Lowell merit system permanently. We had parents that had to file lawsuits to say, “Hey, wait a minute. This is not due process.”
There were other things that they did that were ridiculous, like focusing on the renaming. They really should have had the schools, the teachers, and the students participate in that study. It would’ve been so much more in depth. … There was a lack of focus on making sure all of our kids were getting the best education given the dilemma of COVID, given the dilemma that some kids had to try to study at home without being in the classroom. That was much more important than all the other stuff.
The intent of the lottery at Lowell High School was to address what many saw as a lack of diversity at the school, particularly given the relatively low numbers of Black and Latino students. Do you think that diversity is an issue worth addressing there, even if you think the lottery wasn’t the right way to go about it?
The merit-based system, if you look at it very closely, had two elements to help promote diversity, and they were not being used to their fullest. One of them was that 15 percent of the new offers for ninth graders would be allocated to kids that attended middle schools in San Francisco that would be considered disadvantaged. Fifteen percent of the other slots would be open to students who would be from disadvantaged families throughout the city. Those actually were not utilized to their full potential.
How were those diversity elements not being used to their fullest?
Those have been in place for nine or 10 years now. What happens is people weren’t applying. Students of the different diversities weren’t necessarily applying. And even if they apply, and even if they’re offered the slot, they don’t come. It takes something else.
What do you think it takes to get underrepresented students to actually apply and attend?
Transportation to and from school is challenging. San Francisco has had a tough time with transportation issues because it affects a couple things. If you have to commute an hour to get your child to school, then that child has to commute an hour back. That’s less time for them to be doing homework, right? And if you have to commute an hour to get your daughter or son to school, it’s also less time for you to volunteer as a parent in that school.
What is a better solution to this diversity issue that the board was trying to address? To make other schools in the area better, or to improve transportation to Lowell?
San Francisco is 49 square miles. In elementary school, you want your kid to be able to walk to school and back. That might be four or five blocks at the most. If we had quality schools in every neighborhood, that would be just perfect. It’s not easy to get that. It’s not automatic. But if you can have that as a goal, as a focus.
Have you seen any signs that these educational issues are making Asian Americans more conservative in their politics?
That’s a tough discussion. Those of us who’ve been here for a number of generations, we’ve had the chance to experience a lot of how America’s grown up. There may be a lot of where we get to learn from being part of the democratic process and stepping up and using the democratic process to learn, and from that we all learn from each other. Those of us who are more recent immigrants may not have that experience.
So are you suggesting that recent immigrants don’t really fall on these partisan lines that have formed in America?
A lot of them don’t understand them very well yet. Right now, if you look at what’s happened in America in this last period of time, it is very confusing to anybody, even to me. Why are all these parties fighting? Why can’t they get together and pass laws in conjunction? It’s very distressing. Some of it doesn’t seem to make sense.
What are the next steps for this campaign? Are you looking now to find candidates for the board who will be more aligned with your priorities?
Yeah, I think that’s correct. The next good, responsible thing to do is to see if we can vet out some individuals who are interested and take a look at their ability to potentially be good candidates to serve in those roles.
What are you looking for in a candidate? What are you prioritizing when you look for candidates in these roles?
Basically to focus on quality education for all our kids, that’s number one. Number two is they’re responsible for finding a good superintendent that would serve the district at its highest level. That means a superintendent has experience that could demonstrate they have an ability to be broad-minded with different ethnicities, people of color, new immigrants.
I think it’s kind of helpful sometimes to have a person who is Asian or Pacific Islander, but that’s not by itself meaning that they’re going to be qualified. You want to have someone that is also experienced in working with teachers and parents. Now you’re starting to get into the list of all the nitty-gritty: dealing with the budget, being responsible. Also a superintendent that can understand how to work with their heads of high school, heads of middle schools, heads of elementary schools, and help to carry on a modern education system.
Correction, Feb. 18, 2022: This article originally misstated that 25 percent of the city’s population cast ballots; it was about a third. The article also did not state that the other members of the board were not eligible for a recall.