Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda, Calif., Tuesday, March 16, 2021. | Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom just got the most concrete evidence to date showing why he’s positioned to survive a recall vote.
Recall proponents have made a simple pitch: The Democratic governor’s pandemic mismanagement has devastated California’s economy and failed schoolchildren. They said they were vindicated this week when election officials validated enough signatures to force a fall election. But a new statewide poll shows suggests those two pillars of anti-Newsom sentiment aren’t as sturdy as his foes think. The Public Policy Institute of California found 59 percent of likely voters approve of how Newsom has managed school reopening — and 59 percent approve how he has handled jobs and the economy. That figure is a few points higher than the share of likely voters who told PPIC in March they would vote to keep Newsom in office.
“To me, the significance around schools and the economy can’t be overstated,”said PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare. “These are really two central challenges, big problems the governor has faced, and today most people are with him in terms of how he’s handled these issues.”
By comparison, in a June 2003 PPIC poll, only 21 percent of likely voters approved of then-Gov. Gray Davis’ job performance. The same survey found 51 percent of likely voters supported a recall, presaging his ouster four months later. The latest PPIC poll did not ask voters whether they would support removing Newsom.
Pervasive parental frustration over school closures has spilled across party lines and fueled attempts to recall school board members. Sensing vulnerability, Newsom’s opponents have hammered him on the education issue. Republican former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer launched his campaign in front of a closed school.
But the PPIC poll shows that anger may not be as deep and enduring as Newsom’s foes believe. More than 60 percent of California’s public school parents approve of Newsom’s handling of the K-12 education system, the poll showed. A plurality of voters believe schools are reopening at the right pace, and nearly two-thirds approve of how their school districts have acted.
That support comes even after the vast majority of California school campuses were closed for most of the 2020-21 academic year and 83 percent of parents polled said that children are falling behind academically during the pandemic.
“I was really surprised, because the narrative for months has been about angry parents, and people upset with everyone from their local school districts to their teachers to the governor,” Baldassare said, but the poll belies those claims and suggests “Californians recognize these are extraordinary times and that leaders have had to weigh the risks of Covid alongside their desire to keep the schools open and functioning.”
The support for Newsom among public school parents could form a critical bulwark against a recall vote. California has the lowest in-person instruction rate of any state in the U.S., according to the Burbio schools tracker. The governor has faced criticism for overplaying his family’s distance learning experience, with Newsom’s children receiving in-person instruction at a Sacramento private school since the fall even as California families remained home.
Unlike governors in other states, Newsom has resisted calls to mandate statewide school reopening and left the decisions up to local districts, who have bargained the details with teachers unions. Newsom has had to toe a fine line between outraged parents and the powerful California Teachers Association, a vital political ally.
But he has taken a firmer stance in recent months, making it clear he wants schools open — though he stopped short of forcing them to do so. Voters got a glimpse of a candid, frustrated Newsom in January, as unions were demanding increased prioritization for vaccinations, which the governor later delivered.
“If we wait for the perfect, we might as well just pack it up and just be honest with folks that we’re not going to open for in-person instruction this school year,” Newsom said during what was intended to be a private discussion with the Association of California School Administrators. “You find whatever you look for. If we want to find reasons not to open, we’ll find plenty of reasons.”
Most districts in California, home to more than 6 million K-12 students, have begun reopening classrooms at least part-time after hard-fought negotiations with teachers unions over safety protocols, and Newsom signed legislation last month that provided up to $2 billion in incentives. A majority told PPIC they currently support a partial reopening right now rather than a full return to school.
Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said in a budget briefing on Wednesday that the lower house is unlikely to support distance learning as an option for the next academic year. Reopen Schools California, a vocal parents group pushing for a full return to classrooms, launched a campaign on Tuesday urging voters to ask their lawmakers to ensure in-person, five-day instruction in the fall.
The PPIC trends and positive poll numbers do not put Newsom beyond political peril. Two-thirds of likely voters remain concerned about whether kids can get back to classrooms in the fall. Newsom has repeatedly said he expects conditions will allow for a full return but has not said he would order it, underscoring his limited authority.
The same logic applies to the economy. Newsom has trumpeted a plan to discard tiered restrictions and broadly reopen the economy on June 15 as long as coronavirus numbers remain low and Californians continue to get vaccinated. California voters share his optimism, with a clear majority expecting good economic times in the next 12 months. But a viral resurgence could still prompt Newsom to reimpose restrictions.
“I think a lot depends on what the fall’s going to look like,” Baldassare said. “Parents are anxious to get things back to normal, and if it doesn’t get back to normal there are going to be a lot of disappointed people.”

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