Free Tuition Initiative Aims to Reclaim SF's City College
Supporter of Proposition W on the San Francisco ballot. The measure would increase the transfer tax on luxury real estate to raise revenue to make City College free and fund other services., photo credit: Marcy Rein
In an inspired political jujitsu move, advocates for City College of San Francisco (CCSF) launched a ballot measure that would make the school free for everyone who lives or works at least half-time in the city. Proposition W will give San Francisco voters the chance to approve one of the nationOs most sweeping public education proposals this November. It also opens a way forward for a school battered by a highly politicized accreditation fight, in a city riven by gentrification and displacement.
Free City has everything to do with who's being pushed out, and gives San Francisco an opportunity to reclaim the promise of public higher education, said Alisa Messer, political director for American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121, which represents CCSF faculty. We've been through so much, and we're still facing incredible odds. But Free City has everything to do with turning this story around...To make this part of our next steps in the struggle - it's like a phoenix rising from the ashes, said Messer, who also teaches English at the school.
Prop. W would levy a .25% tax on real estate transactions in San Francisco worth more than $5 million. About $12 million of the estimated $44 million in revenue raised would be earmarked for a special fund for City College students. The fund would pay tuition for students who live in the city, as well as those who work for the city, the San Francisco Unified School District, and CCSF itself. Low-income students who already qualify for tuition assistance would get $1,000 per year for books and school costs, including transportation. AFT 2121 brought the Free City proposal to the Board of Supervisors, which voted by 10 - 1 to approve the concept and put Prop W on the ballot.
When I transitioned out of foster care at age 18 and came to City College, I had access to services I needed, including free tutoring, resources and financial aid,O said Shanell Williams, a former student body president. OBut in order to afford my rent and living costs, I made the difficult choice of leaving school after one year to work full time. Perhaps if Free City College had existed back then, I would have been able to continue, said Williams, who also served as a student member of the Community College Board of Trustees, and is now running for an open seat on the board.
Whose San Francisco? Election puts it on the line
Prop. W shares a crowded ballot in a high-stakes election.
This election is extremely important in determining the immediate future of our San Francisco, even more so than usual given what's been playing out in the city over the last five to six years, said Gordon Mar, executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco, a community-labor alliance. "The tech-driven economic boom has created a crisis for poor and even moderate-income people who're struggling to stay in their homes in the face of most extreme housing affordability crisis ever," he said.
Everything from the high-profile District 11 state senate race on down-ballot reflects the battle between the city's progressives and moderate/conservative forces. In general the moderates, led by Mayor Ed Lee, align with tech and real estate interests and favor market-based solutions to the housing crisis. The progressives look to public and non-profit solutions, stricter rent control, and stronger policies to stop displacement.
The state senate contest pits incumbent Supervisor Jane Kim against Scott Weiner. Kim shepherded Free City through the Board of Supervisors and earned the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Weiner, along with three other supervisors, put Prop. Q on the ballot, which makes it illegal to pitch tents on city sidewalks but provides no alternatives or support for homeless people whose tents can be confiscated.
The progressives' one-vote majority on the Board of Supervisors hangs in the balance this fall as well, with three of their stalwarts termed out, and heated races rolling for six of the 11 seats on the board.
Prop. W is one of 23 local propositions before San Francisco voters. Prop. B, which would also help City College, extends and increases the parcel tax passed in 2012 to support the school. It would raise around $4 million per year to be used for teachersO salaries and instructional support, with no money to administration or benefits.
A quartet of measures, Props. D, H, L, and M, would level the balance of power between the Board of Supervisors and the mayor, and provide stronger public oversight of government activities; Prop. N would allow all parents and guardians to vote in school board elections, regardless of citizenship status. Props. I, J, K and S would provide more money for neighborhood arts, transportation, and services for homeless people - but those compete with the propositions that would ban tents from city sidewalks and boost police enforcement of anti-homeless laws. The statewide and local realtors' associations are funding the campaigns for Props. P and U, which could slow the production of affordable housing and make it harder for the neediest families to get into below-market-rate housing.
The polarized election has set off an unprecedented flood of campaign contributions from outside the city. "Though we have no position on the candidate races, we're very cognizant of the amount of money being poured into the election by deep-pocketed corporations who want to see candidates take office that represent the interests of the top one percent," said Chema Hern ndez Gil, political director for San Francisco Rising, an alliance of nine community groups that aims to build political power for working-class San Franciscans of color. In the state senate race alone, outside committees have donated $15 million to Scott Weiner, five times as much as they've given Jane Kim, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
At an October campaign rally for progressive candidates and propositions¥featuring a cameo appearance by Sen. Sanders¥Jane Kim set Prop. W squarely in the middle of efforts to close Oa wealth gap that is comparable to that in Rwanda, according to our cityOs Human Services Department.
"We not only need affordable housing, but we need ways to put more money in the pockets of San Franciscans, and a City College degree can help do that," Kim said. "Prop. W can help us grow the middle class, and help us grow City College."
City College fights for its life
Families all over San Francisco and around the Bay Area have deep ties to City College. For decades the school has offered students new dreams and second chances, a step up the education ladder or into life in the US.
"After I came to the US from Mexico, I worked all day and came to ESL classes at City College at night," said Salvador Ortiz. "I got my high school diploma through CCSF's Transitional Studies Program, and hope to graduate from a four-year school one day. When I see the sign with the heart that says, 'We are all City College,' that's how I feel," Ortiz said.
At its peak CCSF was one of the largest community colleges in the country, serving 112,000 students; it has consistently achieved some of California's best student outcomes, according to the state Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. But in 2012, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) stunned San Francisco by slapping the beloved school with the harshest sanction available short of closure; in 2013, the Commission ruled that the school should close the following year.
The commission, a private non-profit, is one of seven regional agencies authorized by the federal government to evaluate schools that grant associate degrees. The ACCJC issued sanctions on 53 percent of the schools it evaluated between 2009 and 2013, according to the California State Auditor. The other six regional accreditors together had a sanction rate of just 12 percent.
The ACCJC also advocated strongly for California's Student Success Act of 2012, a measure that reflects the spread of the "education reform" agenda from K D12 to community colleges. The act aimed to tailor the colleges' work to better meet industry needs by focusing on narrow workforce training, basic skills, and transfer to four-year schools; by instituting new, more quantitative "student learning outcomes;" and by emphasizing "productivity." City College led the opposition to the act, with everyone from the chancellor to the students defending the school's open-access policy, along with the adult school and community-serving programs that brought in 40 percent of its students.
After ACCJC announced its intention to close the school, students and community members joined forces with staff, faculty and AFT 2121 to push back with scores of demonstrations, marches and hearings; the first student sit-ins in 80 years; and the first faculty strike in City College history. A San Francisco Superior Court injunction in January 2014 kept the school open. The legal and political pressure forced the ACCJC to give CCSF more time to meet requirements - and the CommissionOs own credentials are in doubt.
The US Department of Education has denied the ACCJC its routine five-year re-authorization, pending further review in February 2017. The state Community Colleges Board of Governors voted in March 2016 to develop measures to reform the ACCJC while at the same time seeking a new accreditor. Until that happens, though, the Commission can still decide CCSF's fate. Its final decision is due in January 2017.
But although City College remained open, the accreditation crisis triggered a state takeover. A "Special Trustee With Extraordinary Powers" replaced CCSF's elected Board of Trustees between July 2013 and January 2016. Two special trustees in succession hired new administrators who have presided over heavy losses of students, faculty, and classes. Since 2012, 776 courses have been eliminated, and enrollment has plummeted by 25,000 students; 38% of Black students, 22% of Asian students, 31% of Filipino students and 18% of Latino/as are gone, based on information in the California Community College ChancellorOs Office database. Because state funding for the school depends on enrollment, the loss of students spelled financial problems for the school.
The special trustees and new administrators ran with the logic of austerity, looking to further class cuts and asset stripping to meet the challenge. Earlier this year, the administration announced that it would cut 26 percent more classes by 2020.
As early as January 2013, the special trustee began the process of turning a college administration building at 33 Gough St. over to developers; the administration closed the Civic Center Campus building at 750 Eddy St. on a half-day's notice in January 2015, and is now studying development strategies for it as well. Mayor Lee's Office of Economic and Workforce Development is spearheading plans to build housing on the Balboa Reservoir site, owned jointly by City College and the Public Utilities Commission. Little of the proposed housing would be affordable; construction on the site could also scuttle the long-stalled Performing Arts Education Center project, and eliminate parking vital to this commuter school.
Free City puts community vision on the ballot
Prop. W flips the script on the past four years of grueling defensive battles, putting the vision of community-centered, open-access education to a vote. Backers see it as a way to rally support for the school, boost enrollment¥and hold the line not only against displacement of people, but of the community institutions they depend on.
"We're looking at competing visions, what we call a tale of two cities," said J.J. Vivek Naryan, a member of the CCSF students' Solidarity Committee. "One vision is what we call CCSF Inc., a downsized corporate model in which marginalized students are pushed out, and this mirrors the gentrification and eviction of diverse communities from San Francisco. It's a vision of the college and of San Francisco as a whole, because City College is the heart of San Francisco. Our vision is of community values being restored, enrollment being restored, community college being free again like it was before 1984, a college that supports the community and life-long learning."
For more information, see "'School Reform' and Land Grabs Threaten SF's Community College" in Race, Poverty & the Environment Vol. 21-1, online at
[Marcy Rein is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and editor. Most recently, her work has appeared in Race, Poverty & the Environment, She co-edited, with Clifton Ross, Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements (PM Press, 2014).]
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An earlier version of this article appeared on Common Dreams, October 31, 2016.