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Americans’ Declining Trust in the Politicians Who Run Their Schools

The San Francisco recall is just one example of voters’ growing frustration with local institutions, and this angry form of local engagement isn’t limited to education. It’s all about responsiveness.

Gabriela López, the president of the San Francisco school board, speaking at a podium.
Gabriela López, the president of the San Francisco school board, was one of three members recalled by voters.
(Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
Those trying to convince Americans that vocal frustration with and protests against local school boards are a conservative political ploy will have a harder time after San Francisco’s recent school board recall election. Three members of the city’s Board of Education, including its president, were recalled, each by more than 70 percent of the vote.

Amid the pandemic, San Francisco schools stayed remote long after neighboring districts had returned to the classroom. Meanwhile, the board focused heavily on renaming schools in whose namesakes it perceived any potential ties to oppression rather than addressing academic setbacks. For the city’s sizable Asian community, altering the merit-based admission criteria to an elite high school program to shift the racial balance to enrolling more Black and Hispanic students was the final straw.

The specific complaints against the San Francisco Board of Education sound more like those coming from a rural-conservative-meets-new-development-progressive suburb like Loudoun County, Va., than from the bluest part of California. But declining faith in local school boards is a bipartisan phenomenon, and it seems that even the most politically lopsided areas are not immune.

Across the nation, voters in large numbers have lost trust in the ability of their school boards to effectively manage local education. According to a recent State Policy Network survey, just 24 percent of voters nationwide have a significant level of trust for their local school board. In Virginia, where the political power of dissatisfied parents was put on full display in last November’s governor’s race, just 14 percent trust their local school board. In California, trust is higher, at 30 percent, but not nearly high enough to prevent the ousting of all of the recall-eligible San Francisco school board members.

This lack of trust will eventually push people into action to reconfigure or abandon the institutions that no longer serve them. The San Francisco recall is a good example of how that can play out, even without the backing of a major political party or a professional campaigning organization: The recall effort was led by two ordinary parents who just wanted to be able to trust that the public schools would be there for their children.

Their story — frustrated parents becoming successful recall leaders — may seem extraordinary, but it tracks closely with underlying attitudes about change and the American system of government. SPN’s State Voices poll also found that three-quarters of voters believe that the most meaningful change happens at the local level, and more than four in five feel local participation is what keeps the American system of government alive. Specific to education, 88 percent agree that there needs to be more transparency in the system.

The San Francisco recall was not a one-off event, and political upsets have not been limited to education. In the fall, five Minneapolis city council members lost their seats, some to first-time candidates, for pushing an amendment to replace the city’s police department. And in New Jersey, a local election had statewide impact as the state Senate president was defeated by a $153 grassroots campaign based on establishing trust with voters one by one as the challenger, a truck driver, walked the district knocking on doors.

Long-term frustration, the power of local engagement, and a growing list of local political upsets are sending the message that traditionally sleepy municipal boards should get back into the practice of first and foremost being responsive to the people they serve. As more Americans lose trust in formal institutions, they will continue to push back from the ground up.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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