San Francisco public schools have been closed for nearly a year now. The educational fallout from this crisis came into sharp focus this week when the S.F. Unified School District reported that Black, Latino and Asian students, as well as those from a lower socioeconomic strata, have fallen behind their white counterparts in reading and math skills. Moreover, they are 60 percent more likely to be absent on any given day.
One might think that the school board would be concerned by this news, and would be dedicating its time to figuring out how to reopen schools safely. One would, however, be wrong. The school board has indeed been busy of late, but not with thoughtful planning about getting kids back into classrooms. Instead, it has been busy vetting school names, with an eye to renaming any campus that honors a historical figure who falls afoul of political standards. While well-intentioned, the effort appears to have been hastily conceived and badly applied.
In a 6-1 vote last month, in a process that eschewed the opinions of historians, and which failed to engage in basic fact-checking, the board took the recommendations of a volunteer committee and agreed that 44 schools needed new names. George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, even Abraham Lincoln are among those presidents no longer considered worthy of gracing school buildings in San Francisco, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Adolph Sutro (the two Jews on the list).
This project comes in the wake of a legitimate national movement to rename military bases and public institutions bearing the monikers of Confederate leaders. But it’s one thing to strip the nameplate in front of, say, a Robert E. Lee High School, and another to rename Lowell High because someone on the renaming committee claimed that James Russell Lowell, a renowned 19th-century poet and critic famous for his anti-slavery writings, “didn’t want Black people to vote,” an assertion that is patently false.
As for Sutro, the silver magnate and former San Francisco mayor, his name is on the list because of an 1897 incident at Sutro Baths, when an African American was denied entry. Does this erase all of the good he did for our young city? It’s arguable, but is this not a better question for historians, scholars and, dare we say, educators, rather than school board officials who are none of these and have declined to seek such expert counsel?
Feinstein, California’s first Jewish female senator, is on the outs because as mayor she once allowed a Confederate flag to fly as part of a historical presentation across from City Hall that had been erected in 1964. While the stars-and-bars flag is offensive and should not be displayed in any setting, does anyone believe the Democrat from San Francisco has a secret crush on the antebellum South?
The notion of renaming institutions to keep step with modern sensibilities has merit. When it became clear that Julius Kahn, a 19th-century Jewish member of Congress, supported the Chinese Exclusion Act and called Chinese immigrants “the most debased people on the face of the earth,” a playground named for him was promptly renamed in 2018, and the Jewish community supported the decision.
This misguided effort by the SFUSD board to engage in a wholesale renaming of schools is a case of the pendulum of justice swinging too far in one direction. We hope and trust that it will find its way back to the middle so that the district can focus on what’s important: getting our kids safely back to school. And when the board does turn its attention to renaming, it should take much more care in deciding which names to cancel and which to keep. Just as board members would encourage the students in their charge, we encourage them to do their homework — and check their work.