By JR Valrey, The Minister of Information
On February 16th, residents of San Francisco voted in a controversial school board recall election that stripped 3 of the 7-member School Board from their post. Alison Collins, Gabriela López, and Faauuga Moliga were recalled after implementing legislation to create a fairer process, at Lowell school, for students of historically disadvantaged groups to enroll, among other issues. Allison Collins was the only representative from the Black community on the San Francisco Board of Education, and after she was ousted, Mayor London Breed, the first Black woman mayor of San Francisco, has failed with her appointments, to appoint anyone Black, from the San Francisco education community.
One month after the recall, former San Francisco School Board member Alison Collins has put her ducks in order to create Ali Collins Productions, a media platform dedicated to educating students, parents, and the community about the fight for racial justice in the public school system. We must support people from our community that are fighting in our collective interest. Check out Alison Collins in her own words.
JR Valrey: What are your thoughts on the recent SF School Board Recall Elections where you and 2 other school board members were unseated? What is the story behind the story?
Alison Collins: Folks like to think that San Francisco is an exceptional city, and in many ways it is; nonetheless, it is still an American city. This is to say it is not immune from other societal ills which plague American life, such as redlining, segregation, and pervasive anti-Black racism.
What is happening in San Francisco is no different than battles we are seeing nationally. There has been a dramatic rise in recalls against school board members—this past year alone, there have been 2½ times more recalls, (an average of 23 per/yr vs. 84 last year). And, despite what recallers want people to believe, San Francisco shares many similarities with other school board takeovers happening across the country.
The first thing folks need to understand is that school boards are a pathway to power. For example, folks who serve on the SF school boards have often gone on to serve on the Board of Supervisors and then state office.
Over the past several years there have been sweeping changes brought about as a result of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests. School districts embraced antiracist teaching, desegregated elite schools, incorporated more books by Black, Native American and LGBTQ authors, and removed police from and renamed schools.
In response to this progress, right-wing forces seized the opportunity to engage conservative voters who fear cultural change. Using dog-whistle racism, misogyny and homophobia/transphobia the GOP rebranded itself as the “party of parents” and began weaponizing parental frustration and anger over school closures due to COVID to “take back” local political power.
We see this nationally and locally when reopener/recallers groups have targeted school board members and education leaders who have implemented policies supporting Black, Native American, low-income immigrant, and LGBTQ students.
San Francisco recallers share the same list of grievances we see in other recalls across the nation: complaints about renaming schools named after people who supported slavery, claims that desegregating elite schools will lead to their destruction, arguments that centering the needs of Black students are racist towards White and Asian students, and the idea that when teachers organize for safe working conditions, they are harming children.
SF recallers also share the same base of support we see in other national recalls. Recall supporters have been predominantly white and Asian, older and more affluent, and more conservative vs progressive. Additionally, donors to the recall campaign have also shown clear ties to the Republican Party and right-wing media. The SF school board recall would not have qualified for the ballot without hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from wealthy Republican investors Arthur Rock, David Sacks, William Oberndorf, who represent ties to the tech, real estate, and charter school sectors.
Siva Raj filed the initial recall paperwork with Autumn Looijen, only a few months after moving to SF in the fall of 2020. He credited financial support from wealthy donors for collecting sixty percent of the signatures needed for the recall to qualify for the ballot. Contrary to proponents’ claims that the recall was a largely volunteer effort, recallers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring a Texas-based signature-gathering operation to San Francisco.
The SF Board of Education Recall also relied heavily on conservative media to promote their campaign. Shiva Raj and Autumn Looijen launched their campaign on Glenn Beck’s conservative radio show. Roughly one year later on the eve of the recall, they touted their success on a Newsmax show hosted by Sean Spicer, the former Press secretary to President Trump. Their success was also lauded by former Vice President Mike Pence during a speech at Stanford University.
JR Valrey: In order for integration in the San Francisco Unified School District to work at all schools including Lowell, ethnicities with bigger numbers have to be accepting of those with lesser numbers; in relation to this simple premise, what is happening in the San Francisco Unified School District?
Alison Collins: This is a really great question, and I appreciate the framing. All the big school board controversies in San Francisco have happened when folks centered the needs of historically oppressed communities over the needs of communities who are traditionally centered. Lowell admissions, school renaming, and Washington HS mural controversies arose because we actually listened to and addressed the needs of Native American and Black students. Any time the district has chosen to center these communities over conservative alumni groups or white and Asian affluent parents, there has been a political backlash.
Lowell is a traditional high school and as such, it should be open to all students regardless of race, parent education level, home language, income or zip code. All students who attend Lowell deserve to feel welcome there.
Unfortunately, folks need to understand that school segregation isn’t just about race. Lowell has traditionally under-enrolled not only Black and Latinx students but also new immigrant, low-income, and disabled students. These student groups cost more money to educate, and are less likely to do well on standardized tests.
Lowell’s enrollment policy not only allowed the school to save money that other schools normally spend on education services, but it also allowed the school to receive additional funding based on the number of students who take AP tests. By screening applicants under the previous enrollment system, Lowell was getting more AP test takers and more dollars out of the district general fund. Lowell High School enrolls roughly 17% of all high school students in the district yet receives roughly 40% of all AP funding. At Lowell, this amounted to $2.6 Million dollars above and beyond its baseline funding as compared to other schools that received no such funding.
JR Valrey: What was the primary reason behind the recall?
Alison Collins: While the COVID-19 pandemic paved the way for mobilizing white and affluent parents frustrated by school closures, changes to enrollment at Lowell high school provided the energy behind it. Enrollment changes are only one aspect of the Lowel Resolution under attack. On the topic of Covid safety and school closures, President Lopez and I listened to many parents who were essential workers living in multi-generational households, who were scared that they or their children would bring Covid into the home. We listened to Lowell’s Black student leaders, parents, and community members who called on the district to conduct an Equity Audit to address anti-Black racism at Lowell and throughout the district.
As soon as the Board unanimously voted to put Lowell in the lottery due to a lack of test scores, Gabriela López, Student Delegate Shavonne Hines-Foster, and I were targeted with hate speech, doxxing, and online attacks. These attacks escalated after the Board voted to make admissions changes permanent with the Lowell Resolution. Board members who voted to affirm the resolution were threatened with a recall shortly after.
Many recallers were heavily involved in the “Save Lowell” campaign, which included support from Todd David, a Lowell parent and former campaign consultant for State Senator Scott Weiner and real estate lobbyist, Jim Sutton, another Lowell parent and conservative political campaign lawyer whose former clients include PG&E and JUUL, and Harmeet Dhillon, an official Trump lawyer. Another conservative lobbyist is Asra Nomani, Vice President for Strategy and Investigations for Parents Defending Education, a national right-wing organization established to target educators who “indoctrinate” students through CRT and LGBTQ-positive instruction. Josephine Zhao, a failed school board candidate who was forced to resign after making transphobic comments and promoting anti-trans policies in collaboration with the Pacific Justice Institute, an anti-LGBTQ hate group. And finally Lee Cheng, Lowell alumni and founder of the Asian American Legal Foundation (AALF), an organization with a history of fighting against affirmative action.
The recall has emboldened the efforts of Save Lowell supporters, who continue to harass the Black Lowell community and student leaders, and continue efforts to dismantle the Equity Audit. The Mayor’s proposed appointments to the board have all stated they will look at ways to reinstate Lowell’s previous enrollment policy, despite the fact that SFUSD legal advisors believe this action would violate state law.
JR Valrey: What is Ali Collins Productions? And what do you talk about on the podcast that you host?
Alison Collins: I created Ali Collins Productions as a media platform to educate folks on issues related to racial justice in our public schools. Before I joined the board, I started SF Public School Mom, a blog focused on race, parenting and education. I have a very active social media presence, and have also created videos that have helped parents be informed, so they can advocate effectively.
As an extension of this work, I created Just Talks, a podcast for politically aware parents, educators, and activists fighting for educational justice in public schools.
JR Valrey: What is the process behind how you pick your guests?
Alison Collins: This past year I have been talking with thought leaders across the country who are tracking attacks on educators leading education justice work. They are classroom teachers, researchers, education justice lawyers, disinformation experts, historians, and researchers.
My first guest this season was Dr. Walter D. Greason, who created the Racial Violence Syllabus after Heather Heyer was murdered in the Unite the Right Rally in 2017. Historians like him remind us that we should expect to see a backlash when we achieve progress towards a multiracial democracy.
The people most often talking about education justice work in the media are politicians and talking heads who often promote propaganda and disinformation. Mainstream media regularly exclude perspectives of Black and Brown communities and the voices of folks who are directly impacted. Black media and citizen journalists do a great service to the public because they provide important perspectives that challenge the status quo.
JR Valrey: What inspired you to get into the media after the recall?
Alison Collins: This past year I witnessed how pervasive disinformation is about public education. I saw a need to provide a platform for education leaders fighting to protect public education and create healing and affirming educational spaces for our kids.
Politicians use misinformation about urban public schools as a dog-whistle and demonize efforts to support Black Brown and LGBTQ kids.
Locally, moderates and conservatives have used parental frustration about school closures and concerns about Lowell to take mayoral control of the school board.
Similarly, on a national scale conservative and right-wing forces have used anger about mask mandates and fear-mongering about CRT to take over control of local offices. Glenn Youngkin’s VA gubernatorial campaign credited its success to this strategy.
My goal in launching the podcast and expanding my blog and other content is to help regular folks connect the dots, so they can push back on disinformation and get involved in protecting progress.
JR Valrey: What part do you see yourself playing in the fight for public education in San Francisco, with your media platform?
Alison Collins: In an effort to “take back” our country, the GOP has launched an all-out communications war on racial progress by creating a boogie man out of Critical Race Theory, and weaponizing “wokeness”. These attacks on educators at all levels are resulting in a new McCarthy era where books are being banned, LGBTQ students are being pushed back into the closet, and Black, Brown, and social justice educators are being purged from our education system.
The San Francisco School Board Recall is important nationally because it represents a strategy for taking back control of political power at the local level. It also represents a movement to dismantle gains by Black and Brown educators to teach a more inclusive history of our country, and include non-white male perspectives in our curriculum.
Parents and educators need content to push back on misinformation about our public education system and racial justice work going on in public schools.
JR Valrey: What do you hope people gain from your platform?
Alison Collins: While Gabriela López and I were in office, we were able to implement some long-awaited changes in the district. Antiracist teaching became more pervasive in schools and in the SFUSD central office. And communities of color were empowered to be more involved in setting policies that directly impacted their communities.
Together Gabriela and I authored resolutions to reframe how we approach teaching in all content areas to incorporate an ethnic studies framework. We acknowledged the Native American and Native Alaskan need for reparations, visibility and removal of stereotypes from SFUSD textbooks. We established a focus on Latinx student success. We stopped the district from excluding low-income, immigrant and disabled students from arts instruction. We implemented enhanced COVID safety measures. Our board voted to eliminate the unfair practice of funding schools based on students taking AP tests. We wrote a resolution to permanently remove selective enrollment at Lowell and formally launched an Equity Audit to address antiBlack racism in our district. And we authored another resolution to re-examine the district model for teaching and assessing student literacy.
It’s important for folks to understand that anti-racist work means rebalancing power and creating access. In order to repair the harm caused to communities who have experienced cultural genocide and erasure, it is important to give more than just lip service. We need to shift power and recenter the needs of historically oppressed communities over the needs of those who have previously benefited.
As a result of strong advocacy from educators and parents, like me, over the past ten years, SFUSD has been doing a lot of antiracist work internally. I do believe there are folks within the system who understand and agree with this approach. Unfortunately, there are also folks within the larger community, who are used to being centered in decision-making and don’t want to share power or resources.
If we are ever going to be successful in eradicating the embedded systems which perpetuate white supremacist culture in our district (and city), we will have to do work within the larger community to support and protect it.
This experience has shown me that it isn’t enough to author or pass resolutions. We need strong community support to ensure progressive policies are implemented. The public must also be informed so they are not misled by folks who seek to undermine change. Otherwise, we will consistently see progress dismantled by those with power and money.
JR Valrey: How could people stay online with you?
Alison Collins: Stay up to date with me on Twitter, with the handle @alimcollins. Read what I have to say about education policy on Medium via @alimcolins. Go to @AliCollinsProductions Facebook and IG to see Just Talks Podcasts, videos and blog posts. Or go directly to the AliCollinsProductions YouTube channel.