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 “Problems included a dearth of student services, outdated instruction guides, antiquated computer systems and lack of fiscal controls,” the ACCJC said, adding that the school had failed to collect about $8 million in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.

But through it all, the commission has held its ground. It's insisted that it legally can’t grant City College more time, even though government officials say that it could by law use its discretion. “No one believes—no one, even the most strident faculty member—has said that the school now meets accreditation standards,” said Dave Hyams, a public relations representative for the ACCJC. “They didn’t meet them, they don’t meet them, and they won’t meet them, by everyone’s admission. The problem isn’t the accreditation system.” The college has lodged an appeal that an ACCJC panel must rule on by July 31, but the body hasn’t given any sign that it plans to reverse the decision.

Rafael Mandelman, a CCSF board member, said it’s hard to understand the commission’s obstinacy. “I think they are incredibly stubborn, petty and vindictive people,” he said. “They’re an accrediting commission gone wrong.” The ACCJC is a private peer review body made up of past and present California college administrators and educators that Mandelman believes has become “increasingly polarized.” One of six community college accrediting bodies in the United States, the ACCJC has in recent years put colleges on notice at a vastly higher rate than its counterparts, accounting for 64 percent of sanctions nationwide in the 2011–12 school year. But the move to actually yank accreditation is extremely rare even for the ACCJC. In recent years, the commission has disaccredited only one other school, the smaller Compton College, where it found serious financial fraud.

Nothing like that was going on at CCSF. The college had its share of problems, said Mandelman, who joined the board in 2012 hoping to help transform it into a more effective body. Issues included “a lot of dead wood in the administration,” “a dysfunctional basket case” of a board and financial backlog made worse by the recession. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good place,” he said. “It was certainly not worse than other community colleges.” One state assemblyman has pointed out that although “CCSF failed to meet nine out of eleven standards required by the commission…two other colleges failed all eleven standards and were only given a warning, which is the lowest level of sanction.”

While some say the commission’s move against City College is a sign of its arbitrariness, others agree with Kaufmyn that it’s political. The San Francisco attorney’s lawsuit against the ACCJC “alleges that the private agency unlawfully allowed its advocacy and political bias to prejudice its evaluation of college accreditation standards…in retaliation for City College having embraced and advocated a different vision for California’s community colleges than the ACCJC itself.”

Differences in vision became especially clear in the debate over California’s 2012 Student Success Act. Coming in the midst of severe budget shortfalls, the legislation mandated more rigid assessments and standards to encourage higher community college graduation rates and transfers to four-year schools, and included a requirement that students receiving fee waivers for their studies meet certain benchmarks for academic progress. Members of the CCSF community vocally opposed the Act, with now–Student Trustee Shanell Williams arguing it would pull support from students like herself whose disadvantaged backgrounds might make it harder for them to meet the standards or to travel a smooth road to graduation or transfer. Williams “grew up in San Francisco surrounded by drugs and violence” and came to City College not knowing “how to be a student.” She couldn’t attend full-time because she needed to work to support her family. Williams said CCSF transformed her into a dedicated learner and that the state legislation was really “about making the most disenfranchised students pay for an economic crisis that is not our fault.”

These arguments echo a nationwide conversation about the impact of “standards-based” schemes on community-focused public education. The debate so far has centered on K-12 and topics like charter schools, Common Core standards and corporate profit-generating education technology backed by conservative advocacy groups. But it’s also expanding into community colleges, as the San Francisco Attorney’s office pointed out:

The ACCJC has been a leading advocate to dramatically reshape the mission of California’s community colleges through more restrictive policies focusing on degree completion to the exclusion of additional vocational, remedial and non-credit offerings. The controversial political agenda—whose proponents include conservative advocacy organizations, for-profit colleges and corporate student lenders—represents a significant departure from the abiding “open access” mission pursued by San Francisco’s Community College District since it was first established, and also repeatedly affirmed by the state legislature.

ACCJC spokesman Hyams denied that the ACCJC was biased. “There’s nothing political about this,” he said. “Every school is held to the same standard, and every school in California is evaluated, and it’s a fair non-partial peer review evaluation, going on for fifty years this way, and this is the first time a school has been so sub-standard.” When asked about CCSF’s above average performance on the state’s “Student Success Scorecard,” Hyams speculated that “perhaps CCSF’s students are more driven, or the extraordinarily high ratio of faculty to FTE [full-time equivalent] student contributes to this success rate; I don’t really know.” He later clarified, after the commission’s president happened to see his comments, that this was his personal opinion and did not represent the commission’s view.

Such communications did nothing to change the impression that the ACCJC’s operations are unsystematic or even haphazard. Its perceived arbitrariness has led California Congresswoman Jackie Speier to argue that there’s a national need to make accreditors more accountable—also the aim of a bill in the state legislature whose fate is uncertain. Indeed, the move to disaccredit CCSF seems especially harsh given the continued accreditation (though not by the same commission) of several infamously predatory for-profit colleges in the area that get a disproportionate chunk of federal tuition aid—including schools the state is now suing for misleading applicants about their programs’ success rates and students’ ability to pay off their loans. If City College closes, disadvantaged students may have few options but these for-profits.

In the meantime, CCSF community members say the disaccreditation threat already has changed the school for the worse. Last year, the college’s elected board on which Mandelman and Williams sit was replaced by a “Special Trustee with Extraordinary Powers” appointed by the state’s community colleges chancellor the year before to oversee CCSF’s progress. The March clash on campus began as a protest against the special trustee, who has made cuts to the very programs—ethnic, LGBT and other diversity studies, for example—that make City College what it is, said Lalo Gonzalez, a Latino Studies student. “We had a faculty member who worked with students with disabilities, but he was fired, so there’s no one to teach braille anymore.”

Mandelman and new college administrators say many changes were needed to improve the college’s operations, but that the looming threat of disaccreditation has caused far more problems than it’s solved. Students are hesitant to register at the school, and enrollment has fallen from 90,000 in 2012 to about 77,000. The college estimates the enrollment drop will cost the school $20 million in lowered state funding this coming year unless the California legislature passes a bill, currently in committee, to prop up its finances.

Despite these setbacks, CCSF has made “tremendous progress” in the areas criticized by the commission, say San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, who’ve asked the ACCJC to grant the college more time. Even members of the commission acknowledge that “the school is turning for the better.” But they say it still would do best to accept disaccreditation and seek “candidacy”—a status that, barring new legislation, would deprive it of state funding (as well as legitimacy) until it had been reaccredited. CCSF administrators reject the proposal, which looks like an attempt amid mounting pushback to intimidate the college into sparing the ACCJC from having to rule on the appeal or defend itself in court.

The commission may well want to avoid a trial. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he’s “extremely positive and confident about the lawsuit” and growing more so each day as additional evidence comes to light that “the allegations in our complaint with respect to the conflict of interest and bias were well-founded.” He added that obtaining the pre-hearing injunction against disaccreditation was “very, very encouraging.” ACCJC spokesman Hyams said the commission is also “very confident in our position in the lawsuit,” but he didn’t go so far as to say it thought it would win, nor did he close the door on the possibility of some resolution before the trial.

Regardless of what the commission or the judge ultimately decides, it’s clear the case has great significance in a city where poor communities are increasingly poorly served. Even if CCSF wins in court, though, the struggle won’t be over. In the absence of an explicit decision to the contrary, it’s likely that the ACCJC would remain CCSF’s accreditor, though Herrera said it’s too early to tell what the full results of the case might be.

“We may save City College, but what form will it be in?” Kaufmyn wondered. “If it becomes a narrowly focused junior college that doesn’t serve our diverse communities, then we’ve really lost.”