San Francisco's school renaming debacle is a timely mix of confused priorities and bad 'facts'

  • San Francisco’s school board used inaccurate history to rename schools that haven’t even been open in a year.
  • Paul Revere was deemed irredeemably problematic based on a misreading of a History.com post.
  • Meanwhile, there’s still no date to reopen schools. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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San Francisco’s public schools were among the first in the US to shut down at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in February 2020. 

They’re still closed. And the outrage over the endless foot-dragging on re-opening is well-deserved, especially considering what the city’s school board has spent precious time on rather than laser-focusing on reopening.

Children — especially those in low-income households — continue to suffer mental anguish, the loss of irreplaceable months of youth and social discovery, and a permanent stunting of their education as long as in-person schooling remains unavailable.

And yet for some reason, San Francisco’s Board of Education recently devoted a disproportionate amount of time and energy on an effort to review every single public school in the district with the goal of swiftly renaming any building bearing the name of a person who contributed to the abuse or subjugation of women, minorities, queer people, and the environment.

There’s still no set date to reopen San Francisco’s schools. 

Misplaced priorities and moving goalposts 

In an extraordinary move, City attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against the San Francisco Unified School District earlier this month, with the support of liberal Mayor London Breed, in an attempt to re-open schools. 

But the same excuses offered by the school board and teachers unions for why schools can’t reopen remain unchanged:

“Teachers’ lives would be at grave risk” is a common argument — even though the CDC has repeatedly stated that schools are among the lowest-risk public places for spreading COVID.

“Schools need revamped ventilation systems” is another — even though the CDC has recommended reopening schools with basic social distancing and ventilation measures (like a fan and an open window) as soon as possible.  

“Teachers need to be vaccinated” is yet another — even though teachers are among the prioritized professions for vaccination in California already. 

And while California is slowly ramping up its vaccine roll out, the school district and unions could use their resources to help teachers and school employees coordinate COVID vaccination appointments. Thus far, there has been no demonstrable urgency in taking such initiatives. 

But no one can argue the school board hasn’t treated the effort to rename schools with the utmost urgency. 

Originally conceived in 2018 in the wake of the Neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, the school re-naming project was kicked into high gear this past summer following the police killing of George Floyd and protests against racism and police brutality.

A schools renaming committee was convened and as can be seen in public video of its deliberations, adherence to historical facts was a secondary concern, and the scope of its own mission seemed to change on the whims of a few of its members. 

Committee members were expected to come to the meeting having already conducted their research, and yet during the meeting members are seen Google-searching for impeachable evidence of reputation-destroying racism or contributions to colonialism. 

And even with such flimsy source material, members sometimes misread the information before them, as demonstrated when a committee member said Paul Revere participated in a conquest of Native American land.

Not only did that not happen, it isn’t even asserted in the History.com “10 Things You May Not Know About Paul Revere” post cited as evidence to justify removing Revere’s name.

Other names deemed worthy of removal included Abraham Lincoln, because despite signing the Emancipation Proclamation his policies were “detrimental” to Native Americans, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein for her support of an urban renewal project that displaced members of a Filipino community while she served as the city’s mayor. 

One committee member noted that former Mayor George Moscone also supported neighborhood-disrupting urban renewal projects, but the school named for the martyred Moscone (who in 1978 was assassinated along with the legendary gay rights activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk) was spared by the committee. 

The mythical city of “El Dorado” — in which a king sprinkled subjects in gold dust — was deemed removable because the Gold Rush led to the death of Native Americans and, as one committee member put it, “I don’t think the concept of greed and lust for gold is a concept we want our children to be given.” 

Another committee member pushed back, arguing that not only is El Dorado not real, it’s not a person, and therefore out of the scope of the group’s stated guidelines. His point of view was rejected out of hand. 

There were several more egregious mistakes, but the San Francisco school board voted 6 to 1 to accept the committee’s recommendations and to begin the process of swiftly renaming 44 schools — including those named for Revere, Lincoln, and Feinstein.

The response was tough but fair. 

A historical embarrassment

An exasperated Mayor Breed said the school board should “bring the same urgency and focus on getting our kids back in the classroom” and only when that’s accomplished should we “have that longer conversation about the future of school names.”

The liberal-leaning San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board lamented that the board “largely quit the education business and rebranded themselves as amateur historians.”

And in an interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, school board president Gabriela Lopez appeared to defend the committee’s decision to not consult historians who could have easily helped the committee avoid its embarrassing mistakes. Lopez said she didn’t want “get into a process where we then discredit the work that this group has done.”

Following widespread outcry over both the historical misstatements and misprioritization of the issue  — particularly from liberals and Democrats who felt the whole thing made them look like “parodies of ourselves” — the school board this week halted the school renaming process until after schools are reopened. 

Historians, previously deemed inessential to the process of re-examining historical figures, will be invited into future discussions. 

There is still no anticipated date for San Francisco public schools to reopen, despite private schools and public schools in neighboring counties being opened for months. 

We need schools, and we need facts

It’s tempting to view the San Francisco school renaming debacle through a one-way culture war lens: with woke lefties beclowning themselves and a liberal city’s government unable to provide a basic public function. But that’s reductive. 

If the San Francisco community believes school renaming should be a priority for the district, the board should by all means push forward on those efforts. But it’s tragically comical to focus on renaming schools that have been closed for a year and for the foreseeable future. 

It is a story of misplaced priorities, but it is also indicative of a greater societal problem — which is the conscious choice by many to adopt a Manichean point of view that defines everyone as simply good or simply evil, with facts deemed secondary nuisances.

That’s why the San Francisco debacle matters. Because for citizens of this country to be able to share a reality-based existence, partisans on both sides need to accept that facts matter, political narratives be damned.

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