College accreditation agency is unfair, rife with conflict

Ivania Areas, 18, of Natomas waits for the doors to open at the American River College Natomas Center on August 26, 2013.
Ivania Areas, 18, of Natomas waits for the doors to open at the American River College Natomas Center on August 26, 2013.

Education is the great equalizer, but this vital role is compromised when standards are arbitrarily enforced. Just ask any of the students prevented from finishing their degrees because Heald College campuses in Roseville and Rancho Cordova recently closed their doors.

The failings of California’s college accreditation system bear a lot of the blame.

Reforms passed by the state Assembly this month in my Assembly Bill 1397 will help protect students in the future by ensuring colleges are accredited in a fair, objective and transparent way.

With Sacramento City College now going through accreditation review, the timing of this legislation is critical.

Accreditation is a stamp of approval demonstrating that colleges provide a quality education. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges decides if our community colleges and two-year private colleges measure up. Every six years, colleges are evaluated by teams of educators whose findings go to the commission.

For California’s community colleges serving more than 2 million students, accreditation is required to receive public funds for operations and student financial aid.

The process sounds simple, but the commission’s track record proves otherwise.

In 2012, commissioners gave Heald College a passing grade.

In 2013, they voted to revoke the accreditation of City College of San Francisco before giving it time to correct deficiencies identified during accreditation review. This risked closure of the state’s largest community college, jeopardizing the education of 90,000 students.

With City College of San Francisco outperforming its peers academically and administrative inefficiencies corrected through stronger management, my community cried foul. Our city attorney sued to stop the closure, prompting the commission to change course.

We must act to protect education across California because the evidence clearly shows the accreditation commission’s failings are not just a San Francisco problem.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education cited the commission for being unable to demonstrate that its policies are accepted education standards, having inadequate evaluation tools and failing to provide colleges with reasonable time to respond to concerns in an accreditation review.

A state audit and a court decision echoed these concerns and took them a step further. The audit found the commission applies standards unfairly and inconsistently. Not only does it sanction colleges at four times the rate of other accreditation agencies, it is the only one to deny appeals for most sanctions.

In the lawsuit filed to keep City College of San Francisco open, the court found the commission is plagued by conflicts of interest and a lack of due process. It rarely imposes sanctions when a presiding commissioner is affiliated with a college under review. From 2009 to 2014, just two of 14 colleges were sanctioned in that context.

The court also ruled that the commission is not immune from state law, ending the debate whether these problems have state-based solutions.

California needs AB 1397 because the status quo is indefensible. The bill requires the commission to make its meetings public and to stop taking public comment after voting on accreditation. It establishes a strict conflict-of-interest policy to ensure independence and objectivity. Finally, it establishes a right for colleges to appeal sanctions.

These are simple and logical reforms that enable students, teachers and taxpayers to hold the commission accountable for its performance and use of state funds.

By turning this bill into law, we can send a powerful message to our future leaders now in college: Openness and fairness must always prevail.

Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, represents the 19th Assembly District.