(Latest in a series since March on the pandemic’s employment impacts, and rebuilding America’s job base. The previous ones are here.)
Over the past eighteen months, the San Francisco Unified School District Board has decided that famed murals by Victor Arnautoff contain racist themes and need to be removed, that the names of public schools (Washington, Lincoln, Feinstein) need to be scrutinized and probably replaced, and, last month, that admission to Lowell High, the city’s renowned academic high school be based not on grades and test scores but on a lottery.
What unites all of these measures, of course, is they have nothing to do with education or the big education issues facing the district; they have been decided without true community input and with public testimony only for show; and they have been driven by the ideology of Board members, rather than needs for change expressed by numbers of teachers, administrators, parents or students. In the case of the Lowell decision, the great majority of alumni, parents and students who have weighed in the past month have been against the decision.
But it does no good to engage in hand wringing or complaint—either in San Francisco or the other large cities in which ideologically driven School Boards are now seeking to undermine academic programs or institutions they don’t agree with. The elected officials behind these decision usually take it as proof of their correctness if parents, teachers or ordinary persons complain.
What is important as we enter the post-pandemic economy, is that parents, teachers and their allies organize their own campaigns to save valued academic practices and if necessary go to the voters. In the post pandemic economy, a focus on these valued practices will be more important than ever. Even in the most left leaning cities, campaigns will succeed, just as did the campaign a few years back that saved the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC ) in the San Francisco schools. It is a campaign that holds lessons for 2021.
In November 2006 a number of Board members, hostile to the United States military, persuaded a majority of the Board to phase out JROTC. The Board did so even though the principals of each of the seven high schools wrote to say that they wanted JROTC to continue, as did each of the seven Parent Teacher Student Associations. They did so even though over 1600 students had chosen to enroll in JROTC, and gave testimony to the Board of how JROTC had positive impact on their lives.
This was at a time when Facebook and social media were beginning to gain traction and a group of parents and JROTC faculty, heretofore unknown to each other, were able to come together to contest the decision. I was one of the group. My son William participated in JROTC at Washington High School, and benefited from it. Also, I had been introduced to JROTC during my five years as head of the state labor department, the Employment Development Department, and found it to be one of the best pre-employment and life skills training.
For more than a year, our group, “Choice for Students” rallied community support, contacted board members, made arguments. After we continued to be rebuffed, in the spring of 2008 we gathered over 13,800 signatures and placed a measure on the November ballot. The measure announced it to be the policy of the voters of San Francisco in support of JROTC. We stood at street corners with homemade signs and talked to voters.
We talked about the values of JROTC, about how the skills taught were relevant to jobs and life, and we talked about choice. For most voters, whether JROTC survived would not affect them directly. We said to them: “You may not be connected to JROTC, but if the School Board can eliminate a program they dislike on ideological grounds, they won’t stop with JROTC.”
Our flyers declared: “Choice for Students believes that choice should be left up to students and their families, not politicians, as to whether students can attend the JROTC program.” We even made copies of the well-known poem, “First they came…” by Martin Niemoller, the Lutheran pastor who survived the concentration camps in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. We talked about the poem’s relevance:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a communist
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me—And there was no one left to speak out for me.
A few elected officials stood up in support of JROTC: Senator Feinstein, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, former Mayor Willie Brown Jr, and Assemblywoman Fiona Ma. But nearly all of the Democratic Party establishment was opposed, or unwilling to commit. We were urged by Democratic Party officials to compromise, perhaps to eliminate the uniforms or program name or ties to the military, to “be reasonable”. The “Choice for Students” committee, led by our chairs Quincy Yu, Nelson Lum and Robert Powell, unanimously voted not to alter the effective JROTC design.
On election day, the measure won overwhelmingly, 55% to 45%. It had support over 60% in most of the City’s lower income areas, including Bayview Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and the Portola District housing projects. It won 70% of the city’s 579 precincts. Voters who had never heard of JROTC prior to the campaign came out in support.
Following the election, it would take another nine months, and numerous delay tactics by the anti-JROTC board members, for the matter to come to the board on May 12, 2009. That night JROTC students from throughout the city attended, and waited through hours of testimony. Finally, near midnight, the Board voted 4-3 to restore the program
Jill Tucker, wrote the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“On Tuesday night, the students who fought for the program waited more than five hours to see their three year lesson in real life civics end with victory… Students screamed and hugged each other following the vote, many clutching cellphones as they called family and friends with the news.”
The JROTC program continues to the present.
Lowell High is a gem in California’s educational system. Like the older academic high schools in Eastern cities, it retains a strong immigrant culture of achievement and individual responsibility. The Lowell student body is over 60% Asian-American, and the Asian-American communities in San Francisco have been among the most active in the past month to come to Lowell’s defense—just as they were leaders in the JROTC campaign.
San Franciscans from all walks of life have come forward, including the popular KGO-radio host, John Rothmann. Rothmann is the long time president of the Washington High alumni association, and an advocate of public education. “I’m passionate about public education, about the role of public education in our country,” he explains. “Schools, like Lowell, that are effective should not be easily tampered with, and any changes should come only after a period of really considering the views of educators, especially the teachers.”
Rothmann offered the School Board members and Superintendent the opportunity to come on his highly-rated show, explain their views and hear from listeners. “Not one of them even returned our calls. They have not been open to direct discussion.”
That may change soon. An online petition urging the School Board to reconsider the lottery, and return to a “merit based” system, has attracted nearly 9000 signatures. Younger Lowell alumni, in their twenties and thirties, are signing, as are younger San Franciscans who had no prior connection to Lowell, but recognize the ideals involved.
The Lowell fight, like the other ongoing fight to save the Washington High murals, will succeed, even if it might take some time. The vast majority of voters will see through empty ideology, and recognize excellence. The earlier JROTC campaign shows how.
This article originally published in Forbes