San Diego voters will put two new members on the five-person San Diego Unified Board of Education in November. This is the second profile of the four candidates in the race.
“It’s the year of the outsider, and I’m the ultimate outsider,” Becca Williams, who’s running to represent District C on the San Diego Unified School Board, said in a recent interview with KUSI.
She is indeed an outsider. Williams is a mother of two who moved to San Diego from Texas two years ago, and now wants to be the opposition on a board whose votes on any decision of consequence usually come up 5-0. She aims to push back against some policies adopted in the name of equity and views the district’s response to the pandemic as a failure that inappropriately de-emphasized in-person learning and turned good students into disillusioned ones.
At the same time, her opposition to mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates has endeared her to some activists and organizations and buoyed her significant fundraising. She’ll need every dollar because, while she has far outraised her rival, he will benefit from spending by the San Diego Education Association, the teacher’s union. This is the first race where they will not have to make their case to voters districtwide, only in the neighborhoods of the sub-districts they hope to represent. But the union’s spending will be influential. Still, she believes she may be in the right place at the right time to make a difference.
Williams’ path to this spot wasn’t a direct one. She used to race cars professionally and was part of NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” program before dropping out of college in 2010 to take part in a short-lived BET reality show called “Changing Lanes,” which sought to foster diversity in car racing by giving women and people of color the opportunity to compete for a contract with a racing team.
Williams didn’t win, but as a finalist she received a contract and spent the next few years racing competitively. She decided to go back to school after hitting her head a couple of times and earned her bachelor’s in English from the private Catholic university Belmont Abbey College.
When she graduated, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life and went to a trusted professor for advice. He suggested she give teaching a try and directed her to a hiring email from Great Hearts Academies, a charter school network that has expanded rapidly.
In 2015, she started teaching elementary schoolers at Great Hearts’ San Antonio campus. It was there she met her future husband who was working as executive director of the school. She enjoyed teaching, but it didn’t last long. Less than two years later Williams, her husband and a group of fellow educators founded a network of charter schools called Valor Education.
“It happened really fast, and I didn’t intend for it to happen that fast. I thought I would teach for years,” Williams said. “I just found myself among a group of people that were the right group of people to try to start it.”
Like Great Hearts, Valor advertises that it offers a classical curriculum, which the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute defines as being “heavily oriented toward the liberal arts, guided by the Western canon, and grounded in Greek and Roman traditions of academic excellence.” Valor even teaches students Latin and Greek. It’s an alternative to traditional public school curriculum and has grown increasingly popular among conservatives worried about progressive values in education.
Williams acknowledges that many charter schools have issues, especially larger networks where growth seems to be the highest priority but believes that some can also allow schools to answer the specific needs of the communities they serve in a more flexible and focused way.
“(With charter schools) you get more experiments and more projects, some of them are not going to be as good as others, but you get a garden variety of schools, and I think I think that’s a good thing,” Williams said.
A big part of student success is clearly tied to factors like the income levels of parents and school location, but parent engagement is also vital, Williams said. She believes that giving parents choices about where they send their kids encourages that sort of participation.
When Williams moved with her husband to San Diego, they’d hoped to open a charter school here, but the district’s high bar to grant schools a charter stymied that. She’d been studying to become a clinical mental health counselor, but, once again, she said she felt she was in the right place at the right time to make a difference –– this time by running for the SDUSD board –– so she paused her studies to pursue the campaign full time.
There wasn’t a specific moment that inspired her run, but the more Williams learned about how the board operated, and how progressive she said its policies were, the more she felt a voice like hers was needed.
“I’m not going to change the constitution of the board to make it a pro-charter board,” Williams said. “But I do think I have a ton to offer this district in terms of refining thinking on a lot of things, because they’re used to doing things the same way and they have not had anyone who’s seen how things are done in different parts of the country.”
That willingness to think differently informs her position on one of the key issues animating Williams’ campaign –– the damage she believes was done by SDUSD’s transition to virtual learning. She said she’s heard story after story from parents who watched their children struggle with in-person learning and whose “good students actually turned into bad students.”
“In-person learning is vastly superior for this age group,” Williams said. “It’s possible that as adults you can do this sort of thing, but something is really lost (with virtual learning), especially in the younger grades, and even into high school, in terms of being able to receive and give information,” she continued. “It doesn’t really work over the screen.”
Research has shown that virtual learning worsened existing achievement gaps, and that areas whose schools were closed longer saw worse outcomes. Williams regards the lengthy amount of time spent delivering learning virtually as especially egregious because of the region’s temperate climate, and the opportunity it presented to hold classes outdoors.
Her push back against the district’s pandemic response, and her criticism of its long-standing transparency issues earned her an endorsement from The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board. She’s also collected endorsements from Republican elected officials like El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and County Supervisor Joel Anderson, and a number of conservative political organizations. In mailers, San Diego County’s Republican Party has advertised her as the candidate willing to “forcefully oppose” Critical Race Theory in schools, writing that “these divisive and deceptive ”woke” ideas will devour everything unless We The People stop them.”
Williams is also opposed to the vaccine and mask mandates SDSUD proposed or instituted. She feels the science on masks clearly indicates that they’re ineffective, despite studies consistently showing the opposite –– though the type of mask worn does play a large role in just how effective they are.
Her opposition to the vaccine mandate largely comes from the belief that it was illegal for the board to issue it in the first place. She’s not opposed to vaccine mandates in general but points out that the process usually runs through health agencies and state governments, not local school boards. The district adopted the mandate in September of last year, and the state followed suit one month later. Unlike stricter state vaccine mandates for schoolchildren for things like measles, mumps and rubella the board’s COVID-19 mandate would have allowed for more student exemptions. It was struck down by a judge last December, but after the district appealed, it was allowed to continue with the mandate while the appeal was pending. Still, local officials pushed the implementation of the mandate until at least the summer of 2023, following the lead of the state.
“The (vaccine) mandate that came from San Diego Unified was a huge overreach and I think they did it to be avant-garde and forward leaning,” Williams said.
Williams maintains her opposition despite admitting it may be a losing political stance, as she believes the policy is popular among parents and community members.
“These are live issues, though” she said. “They’re always changing, especially when everyone I know that’s gotten vaccinated has also gotten the Coronavirus.” she continued.
Even so, the stance has gained Williams support from some sectors. She’s been embraced by pandemic-activated organizers like Sharon McKeeman, whose organization Let Them Breathe has been a pivotal force pushing back against mask and vaccine requirements in local schools.
Williams recently appeared at an event during which McKeeman announced her candidacy for Carlsbad’s School Board, and the pair castigated the district’s decision to reinstate its mask mandate amid rising COVID-19 case numbers.
“I’m here this morning to speak on behalf of the voices of a lot of parents that I do believe have been stomped out by the current leadership as they continue to implement policies in the name of public health that really fall short of the best interests of public health,” Williams said at the press conference.
COVID-19 was a serious disease, she said, but cloth masking in classrooms does not work and officials needed to consider a wider range of variables when implementing mask mandates, like children’s ability to build friendships and community, their breathing and dignity.
Her conservative perspective is also reflected in her concern about the district’s equity initiatives, and whether trying to make outcomes equal will hurt high-achieving schools and students. In recent years, equity has become a buzz word for SDUSD, and in education more broadly, but Williams opposes some of the policies adopted in its name. She said she does believe the concept is a good thing, but part of her opposition comes from what she sees as a lack of a clear-cut definition of words like equity and inclusion.
“These terms have become nebulous, and they represent different things,” she said. “I’d like to see the language and the practical consequences kind of hashed out in these conversations so that we understand what we’re talking about with these ideas.”
“What are you desiring to have the interactions between a Black student and White student look like for example, like practically speaking?” she continued.
But another aspect of her critique comes from how she believes the policies can weaken the education system. In multiple interviews she’s expressed her worry that the “equity agenda” could negatively affect the performance of high-performing schools. That’s why she thinks the district should roll back standards-based grading, whose implementation has elicited some pushback, and return to traditional methods of grading.
The new approach is meant to level the playing field for students who may come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and places less of an emphasis on timeliness and turning in assignments and more of an emphasis on how much students have actually mastered the content. Williams said trying to roll it back would be her top priority.
“I do think it’s (a) dumbing down,” Williams said. “It’s a lazy solution to bad academic performance, because they’re no longer accountable.”
Williams believes the focus on equity is “an easy way out of offering good academics,” she said. “The academic performance of the schools is pretty low, and it’s gotten worse over time. Their goals … they’ve been kind of abandoned and replaced with these new goals, because these are different than what they’ve failed at doing, which is the basics of reading and writing and math.”
Williams even recently published an opinion piece on Fox News decrying what she called SDUSD’s “crisis of intentionally designed mediocrity.” In the piece, she expressed opposition not only to standards-based grading but the elimination of some honors courses at Patrick Henry High School that were eventually reinstated, and the district’s decision to move away from certain standardized tests because of the racial and class-based disparities they produced. Abandoning tests, she wrote, would leave students unprepared for real world challenges. To Williams, the entire project was based on biological determinism. “This new form of discriminatory racism is now in vogue, and playing out at a school near you, to its detriment,” she wrote.
She knows her positions are not necessarily winning ones. Williams acknowledged the likelihood that she’ll win this election is slim. The race is nonpartisan, but liberals outnumber conservatives in the district, and union
She thinks focusing on issues like standards-based grading is a winning strategy, especially given her belief that parents will dislike the policy more over time, but she isn’t sure if she’ll catch voters with that stance this election cycle. If she ends up losing, she said she’ll return to studying to be a clinical mental health counselor. She still needs 3,000 hours of practice to become licensed.
“That’ll give me something to fill up my time and forget about the pain of losing the election,” she said wryly.
But she’s 32 and she wants to stay involved in the political sphere. She’d long been interested in entering politics at some point in her life but didn’t expect to run for office so soon. Williams believes her youth, her lack of familiarity with the political realm and her lack of union backing bolster her outsider status, which may be just what voters are looking for.
“(I’m not endorsed by the groups) that have had the biggest voice at the table and oversee most of the decisions,” Williams said. “I think I’m one person who can hold these people accountable,” she continued.
“I just don’t know if any of (the other candidates) are going to have the fire to actually go against the people that are supporting them.”