On Long Island, school budget and school board elections are scheduled for May 17. If national school battles and maneuvering for the fall 2022 mid-term elections are indicators, we can expect an upsurge in rightwing ideological attacks on incumbents who are perceived as too concerned with the normal operation of schools.
School board elections used to revolve around local grievances, especial budgets and taxes, and sometimes personalities. Rightwing money, efforts to stir up the Republican voting base, and promotion of ethnic divisions among potential Democratic voters have turned school board elections into an ideological battlefield where the education of children is the last things being considered. Ballotpedia reports that between 2006 and 2020, there were an average of 23 recall efforts against 52 school board members each year. However, in 2021 there were 92 recall campaigns against 237 school board members.
San Francisco, generally a liberal Democratic bastion and the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is one of the latest sites in an increasingly divisive culture war. In a recall election three members of the San Francisco Board of Education, all elected in 2018, were overwhelming voted out of office, Alison Collins, who is African American, Gabriela López, a Latina, and Faauuga Moliga, who identifies as a Pacific Islander.
Issues in the recall election included charges that there was an inadequate effort to reopen schools during the COVID pandemic because the Board was distracted by a campaign to rename schools and proposed changes in the criteria for admission to the school district’s most prestigious high school. However the Board had tabled the renaming debate because of COVID and the admission changes were on hold because of a court ruling. There is also a recall campaign against the city’s District Attorney who is accused of being too liberal.
The San Francisco school board recall campaign targeted Chinese-American voters who felt the high school admission changes would adversely impact on their community. It was helped when tweets from 2016 by Alison Collins, vice president of the school board, were released as part of the campaign. Collins, who was elected to the school board in 2018, accused Asian Americans of using “white supremacist thinking” to advance. The six-year-old tweets, which were definitely inappropriate, were used to escalate tension between different ethnic communities. Collins responded to the attacks on her, “We can’t let people scare us. When I see certain people getting upset, I know I’m doing the right thing. If it’s people that have power and don’t want to share it, there’s people who want to make decisions without being inclusive, of course they are going to get upset.”
New York Times coverage of the San Francisco recall campaign was seriously flawed, leaving out the groups funding both the school board and district attorney recall efforts. Two articles focused on ethnic hostility, especially the mobilization of Chinese voters who felt disrespected by the school board, characterizing the recall as a grass-roots effort by newly empowered voters.
According to the San Francisco Examiner, financing the campaign was “right-of-center millionaires without substantive ties to local public education who have funneled large sums into the recall effort, which totals $1.9 million.” The biggest donor was investor William Oberndorf, a big supporter of charter schools and an opponent of teacher unions, who gave $600,000 to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco. Oberndorf is also a major contributor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political action committees. Other heavy donors were tech company venture capitalist Arthur Rock who contributed $400,000 to the recall campaign and technology investor David Sacks, who gave $74,500 to the recall campaign. Sacks is also a fundraiser for Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The California Association of Realtors donated $85,000 to different recall groups.
A similar school board recall campaign is taking place in Alexandria, Virginia where new admission criteria to promote diversity at the highly regarded Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology led to more Black, Hispanic, and white students and fewer Asian students being admitted. That campaign is funded by rightwing groups including the Pacific Legal Foundation that has filed lawsuits challenging changes in school admissions policies in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland. The anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions which is pressing cases against Harvard and North Carolina universities in the United States Supreme Court is largely funded by two interrelated foundations, the Searle Freedom Trust and DonorsTrust. According to the website Source Watch, the Seale Freedom Trust is a conservative foundation with money made off the artificial sweetener NutraSweet. It channels money to other rightwing groups including the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Heartland Institute. The goal of DonorsTrust is “limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise" and it offers a way for rightwing donors to shield their identities when contributing to “sensitive or controversial issues."
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