Free Tuition

CCSF Has It … Why Don’t We?

By Adam Mann

On Sept. 22, 2017, teachers, students and members of the public packed into the Diego Rivera Theatre at Community College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus, to hear Senator Bernie Sanders speak. YouTube videos of the event show a full house, with Sen. Sanders revisiting the familiar topics of income inequality, universal health care, and corporate accountability. The occasion for the Vermont senator’s visit, however, was congratulatory, as this semester marks the first since 1983 that San Francisco residents could attend classes at CCSF free of charge.

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Free City — a two-year, free-tuition pilot program established by the San Francisco City Council and backed by the city’s voters — is a victory for those who campaigned for the program, an asset to the district-reported 65,000 students currently enrolled at the school and a step closer to universal free education. But for Peralta Colleges, an obvious question now hangs in the air, one that Sen. Sanders posed during his rally at CCSF: “How come in San Francisco they can make college tuition-free? Why don’t [we] do it in our community?”

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“Free City” … But will there ever be a free Berkeley City College? Photo: Adam Mann

The reasons why are complicated, and have to do with the structure of different community college systems.

“Structurally, CCSF is very different from almost any other community college,” Peralta Community College District Spokesperson Jeffrey Heyman explained in an interview with the BCC Voice. As CCSF’s Policies and Administrative Procedures explain, the school is run by a Board of Trustees elected by San Francisco voters. It’s one board elected by one city, making it an ideal proving ground for a free tuition program.

Peralta Colleges are also controlled by a Board of Trustees, but one elected by seven different East Bay cities. This makes it far more complicated for a free college voting initiative, like the one passed in San Francisco, to be organized in the East Bay.

Another key to Free City’s implementation is where the money comes from. Essentially, the program is funded by San Francisco’s high-value real estate. In 2016, San Francisco residents voted “yes” on Proposition W, increasing the real estate transfer tax on the sale of residential or commercial properties worth over $5 million by a fraction of a percent. The move is expected to increase annual tax revenue in the city by an average of $45 million, according to the San Francisco Controller. It is from this pool of money that the city of San Francisco is using $5.4 million to fund Free City. While it’s possible that something similar could be instituted in the East Bay, the coordination of a seven-city progressive property tax is, to say the least, a formidable undertaking.

This is not to say there aren’t already similar programs available to BCC and other Peralta Colleges students. In fact, according to the Chancellor’s Office of California Community Colleges, nearly half of students enrolled in the California Community College system (which Berkeley City College belongs to) already receive free tuition through a Board of Governors Fee Waiver, which is available to students who meet certain financial requirements.

In addition to the BOG waiver, there is also the Berkeley Promise, a scholarship that pays $1500 over two years to community college students, and $8000 over four years to students who transfer to a university. And it goes without saying that East Bay residents have the distinct advantage of not paying San Francisco’s exorbitant rent prices, which in the end saves far more money than free tuition.

Still, this does not solve the obvious inequity in which one side of the Bay offers free education to its residents, while the other does not. With the seed planted in San Francisco, it is unlikely the issue will go away. And according to the Long Beach Post, A.B. 19, a bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown in October will, if funded by next year’s state budget, take the cause a step further by providing first-year funding for all community college students in California.

Despite obvious support behind free education, any legislation involving tax dollars is sure to generate a fight. On a Reddit thread that announced the governor’s signing of A.B. 19, a user named Geoffles commented, “I’d love to be corrected, but this seems like a stupid idea. The student-to-graduate conversion rate is already very low, and the existing waiver system makes prices negligible. I feel like we’re about to spend 30 million dollars on a whole bunch of nothing.” (The $30 million figure was taken from an article in The Mercury News).

Currently, there is no organized campaign behind free tuition for BCC or any other Peralta college. In an interview with the BCC Voice, Athena Waid, a community organizer for American Federation of Teachers 2121 who was involved in getting Free City passed, says their next step may be to go statewide and fight for free tuition for all California community colleges, though she says she’s not sure they will be organized enough to get such a measure on the ballot in time for the next election cycle. Regardless, Free City has set an important precedent.

“We’re long-term committed to this,” Waid said. “Once you get this kind of program going, it’s hard to shut it down.”

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