New Orleans In the battleground against privatization of public education at the kindergarten through high school level, the dominance of corporate-infused governmental neoliberalism has made “teaching to the test” the core of the curriculum project. Talking to Marcy Rein, one of the co-authors of Free City: The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All, on Wade’s World recently, it became clear that at the heart of the community and educational conflict there was an attempt to enforce “teaching to the job” as the only purpose of any higher education.
On many levels it is a surprise to read about this struggle in San Francisco of all places, America’s widely recognized bastion of liberalism, but in other ways this highlights how ubiquitous the national movement is to make publicly supported higher education little more than a training and trade school whose mission is employment readiness with the pay envelope, the only important metric. It’s also a surprise because San Francisco’s two-year community college known as City College, was widely seen as one of the nation’s best education institutions in this category and one of the largest. Nonetheless, a conservative, business-dominated ideology gripped California with an attempt to make the core all about their definition of “success.”
As the book highlights these so-called “reformers” had a host of grievances directed at community colleges. They…
“…contended that the colleges had succeeded in providing ‘access’ but had failed miserably at ‘success,’ with success defined as ‘obtaining a credential of economic value’ by completing a degree or certificate….The reformers began talking a ‘completion gap,’ the difference between the number of students who enter community college and those who complete a certificate or degree. They stressed the importance of full-time attendance and a fast track to graduation in closing the gap. They also lauded performance funding (or outcomes funding) as a way to encourage compliance by giving colleges extra revenue for speedy completions.”
To implement their program, they hijacked the accreditation committee that unilaterally attacked City College on a number of specious grounds. The impact of losing accreditation would have crippled the institution and blocked many funding streams.
This story of City College and the coalition of students, workers, and community that came together to maintain much of the institution and win public support in a referendum to maintain its free status is a good one, but not a happy one. Even while winning, they were losing on some counts as enrollment decreased with the change in focus and developers maintained pressure hoping to take over some of their land and buildings for their own profit. Marcy, who I knew as an ACORN organizer in Stuttgart, Arkansas in 1975, had an organizer’s perspective still in reminding both readers and listeners that the fight was still on and far from over.
I’m a biased supporter of community colleges and their most robust, Jill Biden-kind of ambitions. Our union represents workers at the big community college in New Orleans, and has done so since the 1980s when there was an attempt to privatize the workforce. More personally, my mother was first an English professor at that same community college, and retired as an administrator there. My dad and brother both took courses there in things like computer programming. Our son got a degree there before going on to Rochester Institute of Technology, where he graduated. Community colleges are vitally important institutions in a community.
Corporate attempts to control education can’t make all learning into a subsidized training program for their profit. The fight at City College in San Francisco is a solid case study, but this fight needs to be made everywhere, and we need to win it.