When students fought police armed with pepper spray in March, it was only the most physical battle in the heated struggle for City College of San Francisco. The seventy-nine-year-old community college, California’s largest public school, is on the brink of losing its accreditation, and the atmosphere is tense at an institution that’s touched pretty much every San Franciscan in some way. It's been especially valued for serving low-income and part-time students, immigrants and others who otherwise might not have access to higher education, offering a range of vocational certification, cultural and ESL programs.
The fight between CCSF and the state’s outcome-based education “reformers” really erupted in 2012, when the government-appointed Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) said the college hadn’t met an array of largely managerial standards and gave it eight months to fix things or lose accreditation. “Problems included a dearth of student services, outdated instruction guides, antiquated computer systems and lack of fiscal controls,” the ACCJC said, adding that the school had failed to collect about $8 million in workers’ comp dues and student fees over the past several years. Last summer, the commission ruled the college’s improvements insufficient and said it would lose accreditation this July. That would effectively force City College to close, since state funding is tied to accreditation.
CCSF supporters say the decision has little to do with academic standards. City College performs above state community college averages even by the narrow metrics of graduation and transfer rates that have been California’s focus in recent years of tight budgets and escalating reform rhetoric. “We feel like public education is under attack, including now community colleges, by the movement to privatize,” said Wendy Kaufmyn, who teaches engineering at CCSF. “The accrediting commission is definitely part of what we’d call the ‘reform movement’ in education—it has a political agenda.” She and other members of the growing “Save CCSF coalition” say disaccreditation is an effort to stifle a major voice for more inclusive education. “We see ourselves as serving the diverse community of San Francisco, and that includes the formerly incarcerated, foster kids with nowhere else to go, immigrant populations and undocumented students,” Kaufmyn said. “We believe in the arts, and having students be there for cultural enrichment. But they just feel like that’s a waste of taxpayer money.”
A September 2013 report by the city found that CCSF graduates add enormously to the local economy, contributing an estimated $123 million yearly by filling skilled jobs for which demand is generally greater than the supply of qualified applicants. If the college closed, surrounding schools would be neither equipped to absorb the flood of displaced students nor geographically or economically practical for them to attend.
Pushback against the ACCJC’s decision has been building among not only students, faculty, staff and community members but also public officials including San Francisco’s mayor, the chancellor of the California Community Colleges system and members of Congress. After its most recent review in December, the Department of Education told the ACCJC to fix various irregularities or risk losing its own status. In January, Nancy Pelosi questioned the commission’s judgment on CCSF, saying, “There has never been a complaint about the education at this school.” The City Attorney’s office has launched a lawsuit against the commission, and in January a judge issued an injunction to halt disaccreditation until after the case has gone to trial this fall.