The more than $1.9 million effort that ousted three San Francisco School Board members from their positions Tuesday was funded in large part by Silicon Valley-area billionaires, records show.
According to publicly available information, the recall effort’s three biggest donors were “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy,” a political action committee that has previously been funded by Silicon Valley-area tech investors and philanthropists; Arthur Rock, a 95-year-old billionaire who was an early investor in Intel and Apple; and David O. Sacks, a San Francisco-based tech investor and former chief operating officer at PayPal.
Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy put $468,800 into the push, Rock gave $399,500 and Sacks contributed $74,500, according to San Francisco Ethics Commission data.
More than 70% of voters supported the recall of School Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Faauuga Moliga and Commissioner Alison Collins as of Wednesday morning, according to preliminary results from the San Francisco Department of Elections. Their temporary replacements will be named by Mayor London Breed, a Democrat who supported the recall election.
While the Ethics Commission lists three main committees that backed the push – “Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, Lopez and Moliga,” which received $1,059,093 from donors, “Recall School Board Members Lopez, Collins & Moliga,” which received $850,497, as well as “San Francisco Parent Action PAC to Support the Recall of School Board Members Collins and Lopez,” which received $9,270 – the itemized contributors section offers deeper insight into some of the individuals behind the successful effort in one of the country’s most liberal cities.
And the recall itself is emblematic of how education has become a wedge issue nationwide, with the results likely emboldening Republicans who have honed in on parents’ frustration on school reopenings and mask mandates and highlighting internal divisions within the Democratic Party over how to handle the pandemic.
Opponents have derided the recall as a power grab by big-money interests seeking to push progressive voices out of local power – but Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, partners and parents behind the “Recall School Board Members Lopez, Collins & Moliga” committee, touted their push to get the recall initiative on the ballot as a grassroots effort that started with a Facebook group, email list and donor cap at $99.
A investigation published by The San Francisco Standard earlier this month found that most of the money behind the push was in fact local, coming from San Francisco neighborhoods – but the push also attracted money from New York, Massachusetts, Florida and Washington, the Standard’s analysis found.
“Almost everything we raised was by sending emails to our mailing list,” Looijen said, adding that “almost every big donation we got gave us the money before we even talked to them.”
“I think it’s a testament to kind of the breadth of support for this effort,” Raj said.
“It’s true that there were big-money donors who got involved toward the end,” Raj said. “But really that didn’t make, I think, a fundamental difference to the nature of the effort, and it would be a shame to misrepresent and like lose sight of the fact that it was small donors who actually got this on the ballot, made it even possible for us to have this recall election.”
Yet, San Francisco Berniecrats, a progressive group against the recall, compared the battle to the ultimately unsuccessful conservative effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, last year.
“These two recalls have one thing in common: they are attempts to short-circuit the democratic process with big money,” the group said on its website.
Among the top donors was Rock, a Silicon Valley-based businessman and lifetime director at Teach For America who has previously given to a number of high-profile Democratic candidates and committees across the country including President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, data on Open Secrets shows.
But he has also contributed to the campaigns of lesser-known candidates and committees such as the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and Alan Khazei, who ran for Congress in Massachusetts. He has also supported the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Sacks, another top donor, has invested in Facebook, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and a number of other tech companies.
“Every child deserves a high-quality education. School boards and administrators work for parents and students, not the other way round. Competence matters more than ideology. That’s what San Francisco voters affirmed tonight. Thank you @recallsfboe,” Sacks said on Twitter after the recall election.
The California Association of Realtors Issues Mobilization PAC was also behind the push, and gave $55,900.
Other top donors included Y Combinator partner Jessica Livingston and tech investor Garry Tan, founder and managing partner at Initialized Capital, who is also a former Y Combinator partner and has invested in Instacart and Coinbase.
The San Francisco Ethics Commission also provides information via filings made by each committee that allow for even further transparency into who backed the recall push.
A group titled the Chinese American Democratic Club Political Action Committee was also listed as a proponent of the initiative.
Looijen emphasized that even once their committee gained the backing of bigger donors, all decisions went through the Facebook group with 1,400 people.
Looijen and Raj, who said their group was the beneficiary of funding from Sacks, said they understand why venture capital investors would be interested in the city’s public school education system.
“It’s really easy to see why VCs would be in favor of having a good education system because they depend on kids growing, having a great education system so that they can go and build great things that have never been built before,” Looijen said.
Julie Roberts-Phung, a public school parent and the chair of the NoSchoolBoardRecall.org campaign, said a school board race in San Francisco usually costs about $40,000, adding that the billionaire-backed campaign raised nearly $2 million dollars, far more money than all school board candidates together have raised over several prior years’ elections.
Roberts-Phung characterized the recall effort as “part of a national trend of attacking school boards and creating smaller-turnout special elections that are a pathway into politics for candidates who are more conservative and who couldn’t win a general election with a full, diverse electorate.”
“You know it’s a power grab to have that kind of special election that curates a smaller electorate,” she said. “It allows for a small, more affluent, Whiter, curated set of voters to make decisions that are going to impact our public schools.”