When California’s Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) released the results of its every-six-year evaluation of the City College of San Francisco in 2012, it found the school so managerially deficient that it issued a series of sanctions which, if unheeded, would close the college or reduce it to a shadow of its former self. The evaluation sent shock waves through the city since CCSF’s credit-and-non-credit programs had successfully taught English and granted Associate’s degrees to hundreds of thousands of immigrant newcomers and working-class city residents since its founding as San Francisco Junior College in 1935.
A five-year campaign to save CCSF quickly developed. Its tactics included everything from teach-ins on campus, to sit-ins at City Hall, to lawsuits against ACCJC, to ballot measures to ensure permanent funding for CCSF, to research into the national effort to derail public education that have been taking place for more than a decade.
Pauline Lipman, a professor of Education Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, describes these attacks in the book’s foreword, noting that as researchers dug into what was happening at CCSF, they discovered that “the same cabal of billionaire venture philanthropists and corporate foundations and public and private agencies” were in cahoots to not only remake K-12 public education, but to shutter or diminish CCSF and other public colleges and universities.
Their goal, she writes, is to restructure schools as “profit-making, business-oriented, workforce-training institutions. As in public K-12 schools, imposing high-stakes assessments, disciplining teachers and their unions, and narrowing the curriculum in schools serving working-class students of color are all part of their tool box.”
Free City! does not shy away from naming the culprits in this dastardly scheme. Among them are The Lumina Foundation, a 20-year-old entity created by the Student Loan Marketing Corporation, better known as Sallie Mae, to promote classroom standardization based on cookie-cutter Student Learning Outcomes; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the chief architects of the Common Core curriculum and prime supporters of high-stakes testing; The Koch Foundation, established by billionaire brothers, Charles and David (1940-2019) Koch, to fund conservative libertarian projects; The New American Foundation; and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), created by the Kochs in 1973 to push model pro-corporate legislation into statehouses across the country.
Despite these well-heeled opponents, the faculty, students, alumni, and community groups that mobilized to save CCSF kept their eyes on the prize and continually asked a salient question: Does it make sense to close a college attended by 80,000 people, when the educational quality of that college is not being criticized or deemed inadequate?
Since the answer to this was a resounding ‘NO,’ the diverse Coalition to Save City College — members included Jobs with Justice, the Community Housing Partnership, the Chinese Progressive Organization, Young Workers United, the San Francisco Labor Council, the CCSF Black Student Union, the California Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers, and MeCHA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Azatlan — decided to organize for what they wanted rather than simply fighting the ACCJC.
A campaign “for the school our city deserves” led to a successful 2016 strike by faculty. Emboldened, they ultimately demanded that CCSF be tuition-free. Finally, after five years of non-stop struggle, then-Mayor Ed Lee announced that thanks to passage of a Mansion Tax, San Franciscans would be able to attend CCSF at no cost to them beginning in 2017.
This was a huge and important victory, but Rein, Ellinger, and Legion note that while local politicians crowed that they’d created “the most inclusive free college program in the United States,” the fight had left gaping wounds in the college’s body politic. “The five-year fight cost CCSF 23,000 students, 42 percent of its enrollment, nearly one-quarter of its credit classes, and more than 40 percent of its non-credit sections, mainly English as a Second Language and basic skills,” they write. “The college lost a third of its full-time faculty, 12 percent of its part-time faculty, and 14 percent of its classified staff.”
Still, the work of the Save CCSF Coalition, like the valiant work of the Chicago Teachers Union, identified the tech billionaires, student loan companies, and foundations that are pushing standardized education and establishing non-union charter schools throughout the 50 states. They’ve also uncovered the many astro-turf groups that exist to degrade teachers as greedy and lazy, information that is essential for everyone working to elevate public schooling—pre-K through college–as a social good.
So, let’s take a minute to lift a glass and savor the victory at CCSF, even as we recognize the daunting work ahead of us. “The Save CCSF Coalition won the battle for the story,” Free City! concludes. “In a hostile media environment, they mobilized the love and support San Franciscan have for City College. They gave people something to fight for.”
As other K-12 schools and public universities—including the 25-campus City University of New York (CUNY)—find themselves in the domestic right-wing’s crosshairs, they can take instruction and inspiration from CCSF and fight to win. Free City! is their roadmap.
Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All
Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger and Vicki Legion
PM Press, 29 June 2021
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