Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All is a book for organizers, by organizers. Written from inside the struggle, it is a history of the five-year campaign to save San Francisco’s community college system from being shuttered by a highly politicized accreditation agency. The movement went on to win support and funding for the country’s most inclusive free college measure.
Community colleges are little discussed, dismissed as the lightweight workhorse segment of higher education. But they play a critical role in access to meaningful education, especially for Black, Latinx, immigrant, and other marginalized communities. In 2012, for example, the statewide community college network was home to about three-quarters of California’s Black and Latinx college students, and three-quarters of San Francisco’s City College students were students of color. Under the California Master Plan of 1960, California had built up by far the biggest community college system in the country, which was completely tuition free from 1935 until 1984. Community colleges have played a crucial role in the survival and empowerment of wave after wave of immigrant communities, and have provided nurturing environments for Ethnic Studies, art, music, and other programs that inspire community organization, solidarity, and radical thought and action. It is no accident that the Black Panthers and the country’s first Black Studies courses were born at another Bay Area community college, Oakland’s Merritt College. Efforts to control, privatize, and destroy community colleges are essential components of attacks on liberatory, antiracist education.
As authors Marcy Rein, Mickey Ellinger, and Vicki Legion so clearly expose, the attack on San Francisco’s City College expanded on the script aimed at the privatization, resegregation, and control of K–12 public schools since the Ronald Reagan era. It took years of organizing and strikes for K–12 teachers, Black and Brown parents, and student organizers to break through well-funded propaganda about “school reform.” Democratic as well as Republican administrations blamed teachers and their unions for the “sea of mediocrity” of public education in the United States (rather than centuries of institutionalized white supremacy and underfunding), and pushed standardized testing, scripted curriculum, school closures, and state control as “solutions.” Far from solutions, these neoliberal tactics have resulted in the resegregation of our schools, school closures as a major driver of the gentrification of ever-whiter city centers, the expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the proliferation of for-profit charter schools in lieu of public education as a centerpiece of the democratic commons.