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Opinion: Try knowing something about San Francisco schools before commenting on the recall

Former San Francisco Unified School District board member Alison Collins speaks at a meeting.
Alison Collins, seen speaking during a 2018 meeting, was one of three San Francisco Unified School District board members recalled from office by voters.
(Liz Hafalia / Associated Press)
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Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. The U.S. is closing in on 940,000 COVID-19 deaths (which is almost certainly an undercount), something to keep in mind when watching crowds of unmasked Super Bowl revelers after the Rams’ win last Sunday. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

I lead off with the Rams because those bare-faced crowds at SoFi Stadium are being used to portray California’s continued masking of schoolchildren as cruel security theater bordering on child abuse. Plenty of good arguments exist for no longer requiring kids to attend class with their noses and mouths covered, but I find much of the pearl-clutching over masked students to be about as earnest as concerns over critical race theory in the classroom. There tends not to be much discussion about K-12 curricula or campus health protocols in the best of non-pandemic times, and I say this as the parent of three public schoolchildren who wishes voters would pay more attention to education when it isn’t being used as a political cudgel. Because long after the final mask mandate is lifted, our kids will still be learning and depending on the care of California taxpayers.

And it’s the day-to-day reality of learning in public schools that drove the recall of three elected board members of the San Francisco Unified School District, an event drawing plenty of national attention from commentators holding it up as indicative of some broad political dissatisfaction with hyper-”wokeism.” And there may be some of that in play, but if there’s one place where the quaint maxim “all politics is local” still applies, it’s education. In other words, there’s a lot here that people outside San Francisco or even California either overlook or fail to understand, a fact sadly evident in some of the postmortem political punditry.

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Which is exactly why you should read Times editorial board member Laurel Rosenhall’s explainer of the SFUSD vote. The piece by Rosenhall, who attended public school in San Francisco, is essential reading for those sincerely interested in understanding what just happened and not consuming a playbook-style political analysis. Her citation of one particular anecdote is chilling to anyone raising children in the pandemic:

“I came across a video clip in which a student from my high school spoke during a late-night school board meeting about the difficulty of learning on Zoom. On the verge of tears, she begged for clarity about whether students would be able to return to campus.

“‘For lack of a better word at this hour of the night, you need to cut the crap and just tell us,’ the student said. ‘Give us a little bit more help.’

“Schools had been closed for 10 months at that point. Instead of planning for reopening, the board turned its attention to a wildly controversial proposal to change the admissions criteria for the city’s renowned public high school. ...

“The parents who spent hours on Zoom trying to get the board to listen to them and their children had been awakened. Their recall movement plowed ahead, gaining support from progressives and moderates in a city where Dem-on-Dem combat is usually fierce. This wasn’t about a conservative backlash. It was just about a school board that didn’t do its job.”

Permit me to speak as a parent here: I voted against recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom, vaccinated my children against COVID-19 as soon as the shots were available, and look forward to my children taking ethnic studies classes in public school. As I write this, a copy of “The 1619 Project” sits on my desk. I’m about as San Francisco as a white, middle-aged, non-millionaire in Alhambra gets. And if the school board members in my district displayed callous indifference toward obviously shaken students pleading for basic information, I’d sign a recall petition. Because this isn’t about partisanship.

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Speaking of educational upheavals, you might have heard that public universities in California are moving away from the SAT and ACT, two traumatic hazing rituals for college-bound high school students that most of us call “standardized testing.” Some, including The Times Editorial Board, think this movement away from college entrance exams is a mistake. Others are happier to see the tests go; one Times reader in that group, who attended college, worked as an educator and wrote a book on literacy, said her rock-bottom SAT score more than 60 years ago still brings her great shame. She wrote a letter to The Times about her experience and was kind enough to talk to us for our “Hear Me Out” video series.

I’m agnostic about continuing school mask mandates, but this anecdote rings true: Columnist Robin Abcarian says her 11-year-old niece comes home after school with her mask still on and has to be reminded to take it off — to which I say, her 11-year-old and one of my 9-year-olds would probably get along fine. Abcarian writes: “I think about this when I see posts on social media that are variations on the same whiny theme: Few football fans appeared to be wearing masks at the Super Bowl on Sunday — clips of various unmasked celebrities are making the rounds — but children all over Los Angeles will be forced to wear masks when they return to school on Monday. How unconscionable! Oh, please.” L.A. Times

Impeach the L.A. County sheriff? Too little, too late. Alex Villanueva has alienated just about everyone in Los Angeles County who isn’t a problematic deputy. But he’s up for reelection soon enough, and it’s bad policymaking to allow the Board of Supervisors to do something it could still do long after Villanueva is out of power, warns the editorial board: “It’s possible to imagine that an honest, effective and stalwart sheriff, sometime in the near future, will learn of crimes committed by a corrupt majority of county supervisors and proceed against them. That sheriff won’t get very far if the board can easily throw him or her out of office.” L.A. Times

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Don’t leave us, Sean McVay. The Rams’ head coach just won a Super Bowl, and he’s in a position to win over L.A. fans in a market that went more than two decades without an NFL team. But rumors are swirling that he’ll leave for a more lucrative TV gig, which would be devastating, writes LZ Granderson: “The Rams do have a loyal fan base. It just doesn’t have the same us versus the world fervor that the Lakers and Dodgers enjoy in the good times and rely on when times are rough. Shiny new stadiums and sleek marketing can’t produce this kind of devotion. Neither do wins and losses. That can happen only over time. And McVay is young enough to become the next Pat Riley or Tommy Lasorda, if he’s willing to invest the time.” L.A. Times

Downsizing UC Berkeley because a bunch of NIMBYs asked would be really bad, but it could happen after a court ordered the state’s flagship public university to freeze enrollment at the same level as the 2020-21 academic year. Two Berkeley council members and the city’s mayor took to The Times’ op-ed page to decry the effort by some of their own activist constituents — some of whom attended the university — to “slam the door on the next generation of UC Berkeley students.” L.A. Times

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As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at paul.thornton@latimes.com.

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