City College of SF: One Struggle Sets the Table for the Next

Historical Essay

by Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, and Vicki Legion, Fall 2019

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City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus on Frida Kahlo Way.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Alone among his colleagues at the Social Sciences Department meeting, Tarik Farrar did not clap and cheer at the news that City College had been reaccredited. “I was certainly glad that the threat of closing the school was over. But so much damage had already been done. The agenda is set, and any chancellor that assumes power with the blessing of the state chancellor is going to push that agenda forward. And that’s exactly what we see today.”

City College was open, accredited, and free—but it bore deep battle scars. The five-year fight cost CCSF twenty-three thousand students, 42 percent of its enrollment, nearly one-quarter of its credit classes and more than 40 percent of its noncredit sections, mainly English as a Second Language and basic skills. The college lost a third of its full-time faculty, 12 percent of its part-time faculty, and 14 percent of its classified staff.

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Save CCSF protesters fill 4th Street near the Downtown Campus, July 9, 2013.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Downsizing also shrank the school’s physical footprint. After leasing 33 Gough Street to a real estate developer, CCSF ended up spending $650,000 per year to rent back its own space for its business offices.(1) Plans to privatize the lower Balboa Reservoir for largely unaffordable housing were moving forward despite ongoing resistance.(2) The building that housed the Civic Center Campus had yet to be retrofit. In 2019, the administration contracted a real estate firm to study its sale and lease value, as well as that of the Downtown and Chinatown/North Beach Campuses.

In its first two semesters, the Free City program served 24,030 students of all ages, ethnicities, and San Francisco zip codes. AFT 2121 and the Free City coalition organized for more than a year to get ongoing funding. Finally, in September 2019, CCSF and the City and County of San Francisco signed a ten-year agreement on Free City for $15 million per year for ten years—but with no guarantee that the program will continue to be so inclusive. “Open access will still have to be defended,” Alisa Messer said.(3)

Just before midnight on the day before spring 2020 registration opened, CCSF’s top administrators slashed more than three hundred classes. The cuts decimated the Older Adults Program. Eighty-five classes that students needed to complete certificates and degrees were axed. The cuts took out 40 percent of the engineering classes, fifty-one art classes, forty-three physical education and dance classes, the last women’s history class, and several Ethnic Studies courses. The cuts also cost more than one hundred part-time faculty members their jobs and/or health insurance.

CCSF chancellor Mark Rocha first presented the cuts as a budget-balancing measure. But then he rejected efforts to raise emergency funding, saying this was “part of a long-planned restructuring of the academic program to prioritize the graduation of students of color.”(4) In fact, the Success Agenda was narrowing rather than widening opportunities. Over the five years of the accreditation crisis, that agenda—so wholeheartedly opposed by CCSF students, faculty, and administrators in 2012—had taken root in California.

“Student Success” Means Student Pushout Policies

Between 2008 and 2018, the California community colleges lost more than half a million students—a decline of 18 percent—while the state’s population grew by 8 percent. Student Success Task Force measures and new regulations have become pushout policies.

• Financially needy students had been able to get free tuition at California community colleges since 1984 through the California Community Colleges Board of Governors fee waiver. The Academic Progress Rule restricts eligibility for the waiver to students who earn a grade point average of at least 2.0, complete at least 50 percent of their coursework, and do not miss two or more semesters in a row.
• The “repeatability rule” bars students from repeating a credit course if they have passed it, and from taking more than four skills-based classes in the same “family”—so no more than four in performing arts, visual arts, foreign languages, or physical education. This rule hits skills-based classes that require repeated practice and spelled major downsizing for physical education, arts, and music.
• The “unit cap” moves students with one hundred or more units to the back of the enrollment line, making it harder for them to get classes.

Tide of Corporate “Reform” Rises in California

New state chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley aggressively expanded the “student success” agenda. Soon after his appointment in 2016, he launched the “Vision for Success” strategic plan for the California Community Colleges, billed as the way to close the achievement gaps for students of color in ten years. “The success of California’s broader system of higher education and workforce development stands or falls with the community colleges,” the “Vision” declared. Its seven goals include: a 20 percent increase in associate degrees, certificates, credentials, “or specific skill sets that prepare them for an in-demand job”; a 35 percent increase in transfers to the California State University or University of California systems; a decrease in the average units students take before graduation from eighty-seven to seventy-nine. The “Vision” also promotes full-time attendance and “on-time graduation,” penalizes part-time students and lifelong learners, and moves control over curriculum and student services from the faculty and elected trustees of community college districts to the state chancellor’s office. The document says nothing about the need to increase overall funding for the colleges to provide the supports students would need to meet these ambitious goals.

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Save CCSF rally, July 9, 2013.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Speeding Students Through: Guided Pathways and Remediation Reform

The “Vision” relies on curriculum changes to speed up students’ passage through school. Guided Pathways narrows much of the curriculum into six to ten meta-majors: full-time, highly prescribed, and standardized sequences. This sidelines offerings in the arts, humanities, and world languages, and the ethnic and social justice studies that previous generations of students fought for.

Former governor Jerry Brown loved Guided Pathways. In a speech to the California Chamber of Commerce, Brown likened education to the fast-food restaurant Chipotle. “What I like about Chipotle is the limited menu. You stand in the line, get either brown rice or white rice, black beans or pinto beans. You put a little cheese, a little this, a little that, and you’re out of there. I think that’s a model some of our universities need to follow . . . [I]f universities would adopt a limited-menu concept, everyone would graduate on time.”(5)

The “faster is better” trend also impacts assessment and support for students who arrived unprepared for college-level work. Students Making a Change (SMAC), which spurred the equity conversation at City, united with the Campaign for College Opportunity to lobby for state legislation that set up new rules for placement and remediation.(6) Now students can use their high school GPA to go directly into “transfer-level” English and math. While colleges can require “corequisite” courses, the legislation does not mandate extra tutoring or other supports.

“If you’re a conventional learner, somewhat prepared, you’ll do fine,” CCSF English instructor Tehmina Khan said. But many students have experienced twelve years of profoundly unequal K–12 education, saddled with the least experienced teachers, the biggest class sizes, and crumbling facilities. If such students do not get sufficient extra help, the new approach could set them up to crash and burn. “If you learn differently and are less prepared, are more concerned about your own safety or your family, you may not do as well,” Khan said. The jury is still out.

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Another sign from Save CCSF rally, July 9, 2013.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Free College Lite

In a frothy August 2019 press release, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state would be providing two years of free tuition “for the first time in decades” to an additional thirty-three thousand students. (California community colleges served nearly 2.4 million students in the 2018–2019 school year.)(7) First-time full-time students would be eligible, regardless of need. But the money, appropriated under the California Promise Program, comes with strings: colleges must implement Guided Pathways and participate in federal student loan programs. Most “free college” programs being proposed around the country either condition fee waivers on full- time attendance, as California Promise does, or only fill the gap left by other sources of assistance. But the push to go full-time can make free college expensive.

Guided Pathways, along with the attendance requirements in California Promise and the Academic Progress Rule, undermines the flexibility that has enabled students to avoid the debt trap by working while attending community college. CCSF Administration of Justice professor Fred Chavaria would ask his students how many were working, and three-quarters of them would raise their hands—mirroring the percent of part-time students in the state community college system.(8) Some of Chavaria’s students had two or three jobs. It would be defeating to try to cram their education into two-and-a-half or three years. “Life happens, especially when you’re supporting yourself,” Chavaria said. He knew from experience: when he went to City on the GI Bill in the 1960s, it took him eight years to transfer to San Francisco State.

“Student Centered Funding Formula” Supports Success Agenda

Until 2018, state funding depended on the number of full-time equivalent students (FTES) enrolled in a community college district. This method supported the open-access mission. The new distribution—called the Student Centered Funding Formula, without a hint of irony—incorporates performance funding.

Ten percent of a district’s appropriation is now based on the numbers of associate degrees, certificates, transfers, Career and Technical Education certificates, transfer-level math and English courses completed in the first year, and students earning a regional living wage in their first year out of school. Associate degrees for transfer bring the biggest incentive, followed by non-transfer associate degrees. Only full-time students are counted in these metrics.

The role of the mega-foundations in pushing the new wave of performance funding is no secret. The Lumina Foundation included the policy in its 2010 strategic plan and proclaims that it “has played a key role in the development of outcomes-based funding, and will continue to press for the implementation of next-generation approaches across the states.”(9) In California, Lumina recruited former legislative analyst and Student Success Task Force executive director Amy Supinger to head its State Strategy Lab. Supinger cowrote the “Vision for Success,” though her Lumina affiliation appears nowhere in the document.

Beyond Budgets: Collision of Visions at City College

Not a seat in the old-style lecture hall was empty when the City College board of trustees met December 12, 2019. People sat on the steps, stood two deep in the back, and hovered in the hall. In more than two hours of public comment—with speakers limited to a minute each—students, faculty, and supporters vented their anger and grief at the class cuts. Audience members responded to each testimony, cheering, clapping, and booing. The temperature in the room rose with the noise and fervor. Then Brenda Garcia, an alumna of Project SURVIVE, stepped to the microphone, introduced herself—and choked, fighting back tears. The crowd fell silent. Board president Alex Randolph asked that the timer be paused while she collected herself. After a long quiet minute, a smattering of encouraging applause, and calls of “You’ve got this,” Garcia regrouped. “I came to City College four years ago, after Heald College closed. I was twenty-six. I had left a domestic violence relationship. I heard about Project SURVIVE’s classes. They helped me get a fresh start, helped me to restore myself to be the person I am now. City College was the only place I could be, because everything else was expensive. I work four jobs and still continue in school part-time. Project SURVIVE helped me and taught me a lot, and now I’m helping others in the community. This is why City College is important: because it’s a community college. We help each other.”

The trustees took no action on the class cuts.

The day before winter solstice, a new constellation of activists gathered to plan the next round of fightback, under the provisional name of Restore the Dream. As entrenched as the corporate reforms have become, the group can take heart from #RedForEd and community organizing in defense of K–12 public schools—and draw on lessons from the accreditation fight itself.


When Chicago teachers struck in 2012, they took on a constellation of institutions, policies, and ideology three decades in the making. The teacher-blaming attack on public schools kicked off in the 1980s as part of the Reagan-era assault on the public sector. Charter schools, conceived as teacher-run experiments in the late 1980s, became big business over the 2000s and siphoned money from public schools. High-stakes testing previewed in Chicago after the city lost local control of its schools in 1995 and spread nationally after the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind.

The Chicago Teachers Union organized with parents and community groups fighting school closures in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. “Fighting for the schools our children deserve,” they not only made practical gains but began to change the conversation about education policy. In spring 2018, teachers struck in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma— red states where strikes were illegal. The next year saw teacher walkouts in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and smaller cities in the growing #RedForEd movement. “The Spring 2018 movements radically shifted the national narrative about who is responsible for the education crisis,” Eric Blanc wrote.(10)

One Struggle Sets the Table for the Next: Lessons from the CCSF Fight

Keeping City open and accredited “was a historic victory,” CCSF Labor and Community Studies chair Bill Shields said. “That’s hard to remember, because we’re in another period of struggle now, but we’re struggling on a higher plateau. We’re in stronger shape because of the work we did then.” Among the many lessons from that work:

Keep the Big Picture in Focus: In the fight to keep City College open, it was easy to lose sight of the agenda behind the education reform process. But the Save CCSF Research Committee persisted, identifying the tech billionaires and student loan companies, the foundations and their network of astroturf groups pushing the “student success” agenda.(11)¹¹ Understanding the drivers of reform can make all the difference in organizing, as the K–12 organizing shows. As more information comes to light about charter school operators, the “greedy teacher” meme is eclipsed by calls like that in Oakland, California, to “Beat the Billionaires, No More Charter Schools.”
All the Work Matters: To tackle the seemingly all-powerful and untouchable Accrediting Commission, organizers deployed strategies that reinforced each other. Real power to force the ACCJC to change lay with the Department of Education and the state Board of Governors. Elected officials had little direct impact, but AFT 2121 and CFT leveraged political relationships to move regulatory processes. Organizers found ways to engage skittish local, state, and federal elected officials with a combination of “street heat,” careful research, and skillful lobbying. With state and local initiatives and support from legislators in the state capitol, organizers helped the college survive financially. The volunteer enrollment outreach campaign kept City College in the public eye and bolstered its student numbers.
Public outrage and off-the-record lobbying, plus the CFT/AFT complaint to the Department of Education, laid the basis for the City Attorney’s lawsuit. The motion for an injunction to keep the college open bought valuable time. The suit educated the public and challenged the ACCJC’s credibility, the trial exposed the agency, and Judge Karnow’s ruling affirmed that City College had been treated unfairly. The settlement of the CFT/AFT suit forced reforms in the ACCJC’s practices.
Build the Broadest Front Possible, and Start at Home: AFT 2121 had to shift its culture. It had relied on a small, committed (and sometimes radical) leadership to provide for members, but it had to systematically organize and activate its whole base in the many-sided fight to save the college. It changed its structures so members could more readily participate and visited faculty at home and at their offices. The local asked for and got vital support from its state and national union federations, the CFT and the AFT. It also worked with and alongside others who made their distinct contributions: the students, the Save CCSF coalition, and community groups like Jobs with Justice, Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Chinese Progressive Association, and all the Tenderloin neighbor- hood groups that came together to protest the closure of the Civic Center Campus. The Civic Center organizing fed into the campaign for Free City, which embodied the positive vision that powered the work.
Show People Something to Fight For: AFT 2121 and the Save CCSF Coalition won “the battle for the story.” In a hostile media environment, they mobilized the love and support San Franciscans have for City College, embodied in the slogan “We Are All City College.” They gave people something to fight for—first the Proposition A parcel tax, then Free City. In the end, this is a fight over who education is for and to what purpose.
The Journey for Justice Alliance is a national coalition of Black and Latinx–led community organizations that started in Chicago. Its vision for quality K–12 education encompasses “relevant, rigorous and engaging curriculum, supports for quality teaching and not punitive standardized tests, appropriate wrap-around supports for every child, student-centered school climate and transformative parent and community engagement, schools that serve as community hubs for parents, students, and neighborhood residents.”(12)
How might we translate these ideas to serve our work in the community colleges? Positive vision is essential if we are to overturn reforms that dilute and diminish community college education and its power to transform students’ lives. This isn’t a prescription or a talking point; it’s something that everyone in the fight will build together out of our lived stories and our dreams.


Originally published as the Epilogue in Free City! The Fight for San Francisco's City College and Education for All by PM Press, 2021