Stop the giveaway of California’s community colleges

A pre-pandemic CCSF class. PHOTO: Jeremy Bittermann
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Community colleges are an educational lifeline for millions in the U.S. They’re an environment where immigrants can learn English and oppressed groups can uncover their histories of resistance. First generation college students earn credits toward four-year degrees while others train for jobs in the trades. People of all ages have access to a wealth of classes like dance, languages, art, and ecology.

Now, all this is under threat! Corporate interests claim that community colleges are doing “too many things for too many people.” They want to narrow the educational mission to privatize public colleges and force students into debt. Against these attacks, students, faculty, college staff and communities are fighting back.

Privatizing for profit. Corporate reforms prioritize students seeking degrees and transferring to four-year schools within limited timeframes. This approach increases loan industry profits by pushing more students into debt. By forcing a narrower focus for public colleges, for-profit schools eliminate competition to increase their bottom lines.

Lobby groups like the Campaign for College Opportunity (CCO), take the lead in promoting privatization. CCO is backed by the same foundations that have wrecked K-12 education by undermining public schools to justify for-profit charters. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pushed for standardized testing that closed schools in Black and brown communities when scores were low.

Noteworthy in the attack on community colleges is the Lumina Foundation, an arm of the private student loan industry, with links to the right-wing ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). One ALEC bill would impose a 25% tuition surcharge on students who take longer than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree.

California recently changed how it funds community colleges. College revenue was based on the total number of student credit hours completed. Now, colleges get more funding for degrees and vocational certificates completed. Losing out are thousands of non-degree students pursuing continuing education and lifelong learning because their attendance brings in less money.

More than junior colleges. The earliest two-year colleges emerged around 125 years ago as schools to train teachers and provide the coursework for the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. The name junior college aptly described this role. During the post-World War II boom, the schools proliferated and began adapting to workplace needs in each locale; thus, the term community college was coined.

Pushed by the student strikes of the 1960s and ’70s to establish Black, gender, and ethnic studies, two-year colleges began to address community needs more broadly. As part of this history, City College of San Francisco (CCSF) was the first college to create departments like Philippine and LGBT Studies.

The agenda of the privatizers threatens to turn community colleges back into junior colleges.

Students and faculty fight back at CCSF. As an instructor for 34 years at CCSF, this author has helped lead efforts against privatization. In March, CCSF administrators sent layoff notices to 163 full-time faculty. Given that part-timers face dismissal before full-timers, this means over half the faculty and the courses they teach were threatened. Programs like Women & Gender Studies, English as a Second Language, African American Studies, and Older Adults were on the chopping block. Even Nursing instructors faced layoffs during a pandemic!

Students, community members, college faculty and staff took to the streets to call on college trustees to revoke all layoff notices. We demanded that city officials provide more local funding.

FSP members and supporters from SLASH (San Francisco League Against Systemic Harm) played a key role. SLASH is a multi-racial coalition that fights against police brutality and for the people of color, trans, and queer communities who see CCSF as a lifeline. A spring 2021 town hall meeting that both groups initiated drew over 50 representatives from student, faculty and community organizations, including AFT 2121, the faculty union.

But as political pressure was intensifying, AFT 2121 leaders pushed through an agreement to accept 4–11% salary cuts in return for stopping the threatened layoffs. The union leadership didn’t want to challenge elected Democratic Party officials who are the college trustees and city supervisors.

Slashing wages and threatening layoffs are part of a long-term trend. From 2012 to 2017, CCSF’s accreditation was under attack. The accreditors, dominated by corporate lobbyists, had threatened to decertify and downsize the college. FSP was in the leadership that united campus and community in a broad coalition that successfully fought off the attacks and forced the departure of the head of the accreditation agency.

Taking the profit out of education. The vital role of community colleges must be defended and expanded. This is only possible if public education is free, from kindergarten through graduate school and controlled by students, faculty, staff, and the community. A united front of education workers, students, unions, and people working to eliminate racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and class oppression is needed to fight and win demands like these. That approach was successful in expanding the community focus of colleges during the ethnic studies strikes, and it’s what can win now.

End corporate domination of public education! Stop privatization! Cancel student debt! Fully fund public education by taxing the U.S.’s 642 billionaires!

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