San Francisco Could Be First in California to Give Non-Citizens School Board Vote

Mission High School.Mission High School.

If a new ballot measure passes in November, San Francisco may become the first city in California to give non-citizens a vote in local school board elections. 

Proposition N, which would let parents and guardians of students in the San Francisco school district vote for school board members, is critical in a city where immigrants account for 35 percent of the population, say supporters. More than half of the children in San Francisco have one or more immigrant parents, they add. 

“This is tens of thousands of parents who don’t have a say in their child’s education,” said Gabriel Medina, a policy manager with the Mission Economic Development Agency, which is backing the measure to the tune of $11,564.42. “It’s our charge to help these parents bring to light what they want to work on, to be empowered, to be active.”

If Prop. N passes, San Francisco would follow a few other cities in the nation like Chicago, Illinois and Cambridge, Massachusetts, in extending the school board vote to non-citizen residents. Several municipalities in Maryland also allow non-citizen voting in local elections. 

Prop. N would expire after the 2022 school board election unless the Board of Supervisors allows it to continue. 

Medina said the measure would also help some low-performing schools in San Francisco by involving parents in their children’s education. Mission High School is one of three schools in San Francisco eligible for state grant funding meant to improve its low performance, according to the California Department of Education

That’s an improvement from six years ago, when half of the worst schools in the city — Bryant Elementary, Cesar Chavez Elementary, Everett Middle, and Buena Vista Horace Mann — were in the Mission District, but the neighborhood could still benefit from parental involvement, Prop. N supporters say.

“Students with involved parents who are civically engaged are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores and attend school regularly,” Medina said, pointing to a report by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory that found improved performance and greater post-secondary education enrollment in children with involved parents. 

“This seemed like a no brainer,” he said. “These are schools where parents need stronger voices.”

Belkis, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who has been in the country for three years, said she would take advantage of the law to vote in school board elections. Mission Local is not using her full name.

“Yes, of course, it is for the well being of all our families,” she said. She hasn’t yet picked out a school for her two-year-old daughter, but she will soon and would like a say in the officials who administer the school system. 

“The parents [will get] more opportunities to speak with the representatives who are going to preside over the school system,” said Nancy Arnez, a non-citizen resident who has three children in San Francisco schools aged six, nine, and 16. 

Arnez said representatives would be more likely to consider immigrant issues if there were significant numbers of non-citizens voting. For one, she said, the school board could improve its translation services.

“They often don’t have translation in Spanish,” Arnez said. “I’d like for them to provide more translators.”

San Franciscans have voted on similar ballot measures twice before, in 2004 and 2010. In 2004, the measure failed narrowly 51–49 percent, while in 2010 it failed by a margin of 55–45 percent.

This year, the measure is widely supported. The Board of Education voted unanimously to support the ballot measure, and it’s also backed by the vast majority of political groups in the city. The Board of Supervisors also backs the measure and voted 10–1 to put it on the ballot, with only Supervisor Mark Farrell, who represents the Marina and the Presidio, voting against.

At the time, he worried about a “slippery slope” if the measure passed that would allow non-citizens to vote in municipal and other elections.

“Why not supervisors? Why not anything else in this country?” he asked then. “I think it’s part of a broader discussion.”

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His office declined to comment further on the supervisor’s opposition to the measure. 

The widespread support for Prop. N gives supporters hope for its passage.

“Only two endorsements [against the measure] stood out: the Chronicle, which opposed it every time, and the Republican Party,” said Medina, the policy manager at MEDA. “It tells you where the Chronicle’s aligned nowadays.”

Frank Lara, a teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann, said the political involvement of parents in their children’s education is the only means to ensure representatives pay attention to them. Electing a Latino representative or ensuring that more money goes to west-side schools are victories that non-citizen voting could help achieve, he said.

“The first step will be voting,” he said.

Eric Guthertz, the principal at Mission High School, also enthusiastically supports the measure.

Guthertz said undocumented immigrants in particular often come to the United States in hopes of a better education for their children. Proposition N, he said, would give families who “feel like they’re not sure they can speak out” or “aren’t sure how to navigate the system” an opportunity to become involved.

That involvement, in turn, could change the dynamic of the school board so that it pays greater attention to ensuring immigrant children access to advanced classes and providing “culturally relevant courses,” he said.

“I’m all for it. I think it’s terrific,” he said. “It would give [parents] more agency.”

Catalina Rico, the principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School in the Mission District, was more skeptical. Rico said she was unsure whether she supported Prop. N and worried that in this national climate, the measure would do little to make immigrant communities feel safe about becoming involved in politics.

“Getting this passed is only one step in a greater education process that must aim to empower marginalized communities, such as undocumented people and other disenfranchised communities, to actually come out to vote without fear of reprisals,” she said.

Medina, for his part, said the national rhetoric on immigrant issues was precisely the reason why the measure should pass. Voter ID laws enacted in several Republican-controlled states and Donald Trump’s comments against Mexicans bode ill for voting rights in the United States, he said, and Prop. N would set San Francisco apart from the national climate.

“There’s been so much anti-immigrant rhetoric, this would be a really easy, positive win,” he said.

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