A bipartisan, unanimous vote in the Legislature doesn’t happen every day. So it’s worth noting that Assembly Bill 1942, for fair community college accreditation practices, recently passed 36-0 in the Senate and 74-0 in the Assembly.
East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta’s bill is on the governor’s desk. The bill has fewer requirements for its target – the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges – than an earlier version. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction for more transparency in the notoriously secretive agency, and signals that previously hands-off legislators understand that they need to monitor the commission more closely.
Over the past year, the formerly obscure private agency – in charge of accrediting the state’s 112 community colleges – has been under public scrutiny following its unprecedented and unwarranted closure order for City College of San Francisco. Its justifications related to administrative, governance and fiscal oversight issues. City College’s quality of education was never questioned.
Many local, state and federal elected officials have weighed in. Faculty, students, community groups and business leaders are angry that the central job training engine of the Bay Area – responsible for generating more than $300 million a year in economic activity and providing educational access for more than 1 in 10 San Franciscans – is facing closure.
Although community college faculty and administrators throughout the state have complained for years about the commission’s “my way or the highway” dictates, it was able to threaten harsh sanctions, which invariably resulted in plunging student enrollment, to keep them quiet. It was only when City College faculty openly challenged their unjust treatment that the commission’s overreaching behavior came to light.
Last year, the City College faculty union and its parent organization, the California Federation of Teachers, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging conflicts of interest, failure to follow accepted accrediting rules and disparate treatment of different colleges.
The Department of Education responded with a letter agreeing with large parts of the faculty complaint and warning the commission to fix its problems. The San Francisco city attorney filed a lawsuit, saying political bias, not valid educational issues, motivated the closure order. A Superior Court judge granted an injunction to keep the college open pending trial in October. The commission has admitted in a court filing that its evaluation team unanimously recommended probation, not closure.
U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier, Anna Eshoo and Nancy Pelosi called for the commission to reverse its decision and preserve the path to higher education for 80,000 low-income students. The State Auditor’s Office criticized the agency for failing to include enough faculty on visiting teams; sanctioning colleges at rates seven times higher than similar regional agencies; and applying inconsistent standards from college to college. It found the agency to be highly consistent in only one regard – its lack of transparency. And the auditor suggested the Legislature examine the possibility of establishing an alternative agency to end the commission’s monopoly power.
AB 1942 will not fix everything that is wrong with California accreditation practices. It merely says that the commission must give biannual reports to the Legislature about policy changes that may affect a college, and must report to the appropriate subcommittee whenever issuing a decision affecting a college’s accreditation status.
This modest outcome underscores the importance of pushing forward with other efforts. With any luck, the city attorney’s suit will conclude with City College open and accredited. Its elected board of trustees, replaced during the crisis by an unaccountable “supertrustee,” should be restored to office.
The governor should sign AB 1942. Next year, California’s elected officials can build on this beginning to reform community college accreditation practices so that schools can concentrate less on responding to the commission’s destructive dictates and more on the mission of educating the people of California.
Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers.