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Arts + CultureLitBooks: Free City and the fight for community college education

Books: Free City and the fight for community college education

A comprehensive history tells the story of the struggle to preserve SF's City College -- and block the neo-liberal approach to education.


Years ago I read a book called Tally’s Corner by the then-ground-breaking sociologist Elliot Liebow. You can be a participant observer, Liebow said, in his case cutting through racist misperceptions of Black urban life by letting the people he was studying speak for themselves.

I lead off with this thought as I review the wonderful new book, Free City!, about the five-year struggle to save City College of San Francisco from the attacks of right-wing educational “reformers.” I do so because I, too, was part of that struggle, as the head of the college’s Labor Education Department. You can call me a participant reviewer.

My appreciation for the book is especially keen, therefore, because I see how masterfully the authors distill a complex, contradictory and at times overwhelming story into something clear, concise and useful. It’s a good read, one that will lift your spirits and give you hope for the post-Trump, post-COVID rebuilding period ahead.

For many years, the neoliberal, corporate agenda has included a fierce attack on public education at all levels. For K-12, privatization, charterization, ceaseless attacks on faculty unions and endless high-stakes testing have been key, trying to make the public schools our ancestors fought so hard for into corporate cash cows.

More recently, the school wreckers turned their guns on public higher education, including community colleges. Here, their mantra included attacks on the unions, standardized testing, downsizing, pushing students towards expensive for-profit schools and huge debt loads, student learning outcomes and other counterproductive assessment metrics and, especially, threats to deny accreditation. The latter means massive losses in public funds and is the nuclear option in the right-wing assault.

As Rein, Ellinger and Legion show so clearly in Free City!, all these points of attack were weaponized by an assessment body called the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges in recent decades in California. Their study does a wonderful job of outlining the broader context, including how the ACCJC attacked community colleges all over the state, “objectivity” guns blazing.

The authors then zero in on the ACCJC’s game plan to take down CCSF.

In 2012, they show that Barbara Beno, then head of the ACCJC, overrode a visiting review team’s relatively positive assessment of the college and put it on “Show Cause” status — which meant “Show Cause why we shouldn’t shut you down.” This was the first time the school had ever been penalized in any way in decades of assessments, let alone this way. As you may imagine, everything hit the fan at this point, and the college community was off and running on a five-year, ultimately successful effort to regain accreditation and defang Beno and company.

Through extensive interviews, broad research, their own participant-observation and a well-organized layout, the authors take us through each of the five years in revealing detail. The initial assault, people knocked down then getting up to fight back, the marches, the rallies, the lobbying, the countless trips to City Hall, Sacramento and even Washington DC, the endless meetings – they show it all.

They reveal the corporate playbook, who funded it, how it played out in other cities and then how the ACCJC brought it here. The accreditors were ready, they felt, to take down one of the strongest and most progressive schools of the 116 in the California community college system. 

Their tactics included making trumped up charges — the college had problems, but was judged one of the best in the state and the country by numerous metrics and observers. They also over-penalized, imposed authoritarian rule (taking power from the elected board), demanded enormous changes (endless “SLO” meetings), found the changes made under duress lacking and then, after all that work, said, “We’re going to shut you down anyway.”

Once that final threat was made a year into the process, the authors show, elected officials and the judiciary jumped into the ring and helped those hitting the streets to turn the tide at last. “Whose school? Our school!” was the call.

The key issue – would CCSF be a community college, serving all, or a technocratic junior college, serving only the narrowest of educational needs?

It was “get your training right out of high school and get the hell out” versus “yes, we love our transfer students, but we also love our English-language learners, our older returning students, our students coming to us after serving time, our elders in senior centers around the city and, heaven forbid, our lifelong learners.” The college made a commitment to serve all when it took over the adult education function from the San Francisco Unified School District many years ago, and now the ACCJC wanted us to abandon all those folks.

As the authors relate, eventually the accumulating weight of all the organizing, City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s lawsuit against the ACCJC (ably led by lead attorney Sara Eisenberg), state Senator Mark Leno’s financial lifeline from Sacramento and the outcry from Beno victims around the state finally won the day. The college was taken off the sanction list in 2017, Beno and the entire ACCJC leadership team got the boot, and the voters approved a measure that gave the college millions in extra funds.

This money made the college free for the first time since the 1980’s.

As the authors say, the Free City initiative was a key piece of political jiu-jitsu, the inspired idea of faculty union president Alisa Messer. Messer, Tim Killikelly after her, Tarik Farrar and Wynd Kaufmyn of the Save CCSF coalition, student leaders Eric Blanc, Win-Mon Kyi and Lalo Gonzalez among others, union rank-and-filers, the Department Chairpersons’ Council, advocacy groups like Jobs with Justice and the Chinese Progressive Association and community leaders like Guillermina Castellanos and James Tracy – all are quoted and given their due in the compelling narrative. The authors even describe (with judicious restraint) the conflict between college unions and student support groups that held back progress for too long.

You emerge from reading this book with an understanding of what it was like to be there year after grinding year, what a toll the long fight took (breakups, burnouts) and above all, how all the pieces of a modern comprehensive organizing campaign have to be used, with a firm base in mass mobilization, to win.

In describing all this, the authors provide an important service to the national educational justice movement and to organizers from neighborhood centers to union halls. They provide one to the CCSF community as well, which faces another round of cutback mania due to pandemic finances. La lucha continua, as they say.

At this point in a review, the reviewer is supposed to talk about deficiencies in the book. Along with the narrative cited above, the excellent notes, timeline and resource list make it difficult to do so. While some may dispute certain details of this or that meeting or action, overall, the authors get it right.  The main “deficiency” here is that the point of view of the educational robber barons, while accurately described, is not defended. This is not a book that purports to give equal time to both sides.

The authors make their stand on the principle that public education is a right, one that should be nurtured, adequately funded and supported. To fall short of this, much less do the complete opposite as they assert the ACCJC did is, well, a very bad thing. Look elsewhere if you want to give the right-wing Koch Brothers-Lumina Foundation-ACCJC partnership its equal moment in the analytical sun. You should not destroy the village to save it, the authors would argue, nor defend those who would. You should simply save it.

FREE CITY! – The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All

By Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger and Vicki Legion

Foreword by Pauline Lipman

PM Press, Oakland, California, 2021, 288 pages, $20.00

Bill Shields is the emeritus chair of the CCSF Labor and Community Studies Department and directs the Work Tales oral history theater project. He can be reached at billshieldssf@gmail.com

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