San Francisco Voters Overwhelmingly Support Algebra’s Return to 8th Grade

Even though it was a non-binding ballot measure and SFUSD had already decided to bring back the course, 100K+ people voted on middle school math.

A voter at a polling station inside San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco, California, on Tuesday, March 5. (Getty Images)

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By a huge margin, San Francisco residents voted Tuesday in favor of returning algebra to the 8th grade after a decade-long experiment failed to provide the equity-minded results the school district pledged upon removing it in 2014. 

The 83,916-to-16,105 March 5 tally, according to preliminary results from the San Francisco Department of Elections, reflects public frustration with the district’s decision to delay the course for all students until the 9th grade. Not only did it deny advanced learners an opportunity to challenge themselves with rigorous coursework — and put them on track for high school calculus  — opponents said, but it also did little to boost Black and Hispanic student achievement in the subject. 

There are 500,856 registered voters in San Francisco. Turnout was roughly 21% on this Super Tuesday, which also included the presidential primary and the primary to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late, legendary Bay Area Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The algebra ballot measure is not binding and the school board had already voted last month to return the course to the middle school. But the results did drive home a lesson to a board that has paid dearly for failing to perform to residents’ satisfaction. 

“The voters have made it very clear they want our public schools to teach as many kids as much as possible,” said Patrick Wolff, who had children in the district from 2010 to 2022. “The people of San Francisco understand that true equity and justice in our public schools never requires compromising academic excellence.”

Wolff, cofounder of Families for San Francisco, which was later absorbed into TogetherSF, said he wants the board’s vote — and the public’s — to bring lasting change. 

“I hope that our elected officials and public school administrators have heard the people’s message,” he said. “The only way to keep public school reform on track is for the people to keep being informed, engaged and involved.”

SFUSD’s struggle with algebra reflects a nationwide battle over when to introduce the topic. Student participation varies across the country. While some school systems, including Dallas, have crafted policies that have greatly increased students’ chance to take the course in middle schools, others use highly selective enrollment processes, which often leads to the exclusion of Black, Hispanic and low-income children. 

Rex Ridgeway, who, along with several others, filed a lawsuit against SFUSD regarding algebra last year, expected strong voter response. 

“This was the first time that the public was able to speak out publicly about Algebra 1 after 10 years of damage to our kids,” he said. “I was not surprised by how passionate people are on Algebra 1.”

The answer can’t be that the district simply returns to an earlier, failed approach, said one expert whose organization promotes math policies that support equity in college readiness and success.

“So, the prior tracking policy didn’t lead to equitable outcomes,” Melodie Baker, national policy director at Just Equations, told The 74 before this week’s vote. “Detracking didn’t lead to equitable outcomes either. So it makes sense that they’re not sticking with it, but they’ll need to find new ways to implement eighth-grade algebra that ensure better outcomes for Black and Latinx students. Not just revert to what they were doing before.”

Meredith Dodson, executive director of SF Parents, said Wednesday that the public’s work to improve SFUSD is not over.

“In addition to finally bringing algebra back to middle school, our district also needs to figure out how to better prepare kids so more of them can access algebra in middle school and higher level math beyond that,” she said. “We know we still have a long road ahead to make sure that every student has the academic support they need coming from our district — and that starts early.”

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