Defend and Transform Public Education

As the struggle against austerity at City College of San Francisco heats up, this reflection by an Advance the Struggle militant attempts to spark a discussion on how revolutionaries relate to and broaden the horizons of anti-austerity struggles. It is not enough for us, as we build for resistance to budget cuts, to call for the mere “defense” of public education systems under a crisis-ridden and decadent class society; it is crucial we discuss how a conscious and organized worker/student/community movement can make concrete gains within the institution to begin transforming it into a base of ongoing struggle. Towards this end we put this out there. 

Defend and Transform Public Education

The ACCJC, the accreditation commission pushing for a deep austerity program at City College of San Francisco, placed March 14th as the deadline for the college to “show cause”, i.e. prove why it should not be closed down. If the CCSF officials give in to the Commission’s blackmailing, the budget cuts would be implemented the Fall 2013 semester.

As of now, the forces resisting remain too small to defend the school, much less to mount an offensive and make gains. A large part of CCSF’s constituency is unaware that their school, along with their economic and social aspirations, are dangerously close to being destroyed and gutted by the ruling classes needs for higher profitability. For those who are aware, the prevailing understanding is that the City College system is inefficient, outdated, and bureaucratic, thereby implicitly supporting the ACCJC’s demands for an end to such “nuisances” such as the democratic control professors exercise in electing their chairs, Ethnic Studies courses, faculty salaries, and the (at most) semblance of “shared governance” between faculty/staff, students, and administrators. The Commission seeks to narrow the Mission Statement, increase the amount of administrators, and place extra resources into a reserve pool. The implications are that by investing less in the reproduction of students’ labor-power (many of whom already sell their existing labor-power at low rates in order to get through school), the rate of profit for the capitalist class might be higher; the end to any pretense of “shared governance” aims to destroy any future resistance to these measures. The Commission (ACCJC) is, like the CIA, in the business of fomenting bogus “crises” in public institutions that then justifies their authoritarian control and implementation of steep austerity plans.

The latest event was last Thursday, February 28th. Several hundred people lined up along the campus in support of the teacher’s struggle against wage cuts and lay-offs. Around the same time, the Board of Trustees held an open meeting at a nearby building, which several of us attended. At first, the Board aimed to keep public comment until the very end of their meeting, which was to last several hours and therefore make it impractical for most students and community members to speak out. After heckling from the crowd demanded public comment to be moved to the top of the agenda, folks lined up and spoke out against the Board’s plan to to acquiesce to the ACCJC’s demands. Some begged the Board for mercy while others addressed the crowd and called out the Board as the sell outs and agents of austerity that they are. The most radical speeches made it clear that an alternative existed to the budget cuts and that it’d take a serious and militant confrontation with the system to make it into a reality.


A massive amount of outreach needs to be done to win over a lot more people to the struggle. Teach-ins are being organized around the different campuses throughout these next two weeks. Our analysis needs to situate this struggle in the context of a global capitalist onslaught on proletarian living conditions and political organization, coupled with the many inspiring and insightful examples of resistance to this process, such as the student strike in Puerto Rico, Chile, Quebec, Bay Area 2009/10 and 1968, etc. Basically, we need a class war analysis that can polarize students, teachers, workers, and community members around common interests in both fighting this round of austerity, and turning the attack against us into an attack against the racist, sexist, capitalist system. If the small but emerging movement continues along the lines of pandering to the Board of Trustees or City Hall under the illusion that we are on the side same, we will not be able to harness the direct and militant political activity that emerges when people understand the actual causes of the problem and who their real friends and enemies are.

While the immediate task of the moment is to convince people at CCSF and its supporters to fight in the first place, as communists we need to also explain how we plan to engage this struggle with a long-term perspective. One does not need to have revolutionary politics to say “defend public education.” Other liberals, progressives, unionists, call for this because it is in their interest to do so. As communists then, we are not only concerned with staunch resistance to budget cuts, but also with the advancement of working-class power and consciousness. In the movement to save CCSF, which might be a sign of another stage of heightened anti-austerity resistance in the Bay and beyond, our goal is to connect with the radical elements actively participating in the conflict through posing concrete ways where we can begin to change the relation of class forces.

For example, the ACCJC says there’s too many students? We should say that there aren’t enough students and we should demand more resources to expand the scope of the school to include more young working-class youth of color who otherwise get caught up in low-wage work, street life and prisons, or the military. Malcolm X became a radical intellectual in a prison library because of how this racist educational and economic system pushed him out of school and into the streets. The impending budgets cuts would further reduce or totally eliminate the 2nd Chance programs that provide former prisoners , primarily Black and Latino men, a healthy space to get back into the rhythm of social life by obtaining a GED, finishing their credits to transfer to a university, or gaining vocational experience to increase their chances of decent employment. Doing away with these vital services contributes to the oppression of Black and Latino working-class communities; single mothers rearing children without a partner increases the patriarchal burdens on their backs and reduces their capacity to achieve their life goals and engage in struggle. The recidivism rate in the United States is so high because of the structural obstacles former inmates face when they get to the outside, such as discrimination in obtaining housing, welfare, employment, and education, not to mention the painful stigma tagged onto them, thus opening up the possibilities for illegal activity that lands them back behind bars.

In addition, English as Second Language (ESL) and citizenship programs, essential to Latin American and Asian immigrants in San Francisco, is under threat of further cuts. These courses are mostly free of charge and are offered as “noncredit” classes, meaning that they are designed for personal/community enrichment and enrollment is achieved by simply attending the first lessons in a semester, and are therefore some of the first to be placed on the chopping board. When immigrants today are under intense attack by the state, the bosses, and other reactionary forces, the ability to learn English and at least remove yourself from the status of ‘undocumented’ opens up chances for decent work and pay, plus the confidence and relative security of organizing for one’s own rights and those of the community they come from.

Financial aid at a working-class community college like CCSF plays a central role in enabling students to pay for school, rent, transportation, food, and other living costs revolving around access to education. Especially at the beginning of semesters, financial aid lines are ridiculously long due to the need for aid and the lack of financial aid counselors to provide help through the confusing paperwork and loopholes. A rise in the number of well-trained financial aid staff can help remedy this basic monetary problem in the daily lives of students and workers.

Ninety percent of new CCSF students, most from local SF and Bay Area high schools, place into remedial English courses and seventy percent into remedial math courses. Black and Latino students take up two and a half years in these programs and drop out of the school altogether in large numbers, and only about 5% of the total who started at the lowest rung of remediation make into college-level English courses In 2010, a City College trustee pushed for a drastic change in the structure of the remedial programs. He called for a one-year system to prepare students for college. The faculty rightfully responded antagonistically because of how the trustees decided to switch up their curriculums and therefore undermine teacher’s role in their creation. The amount of remedial courses, first of all, reflects the oppressive and inadequate k-12 education that working-class students receive and for this reason, remedial courses must be retained as a response to the consequences of racism and capitalism. More than that however, students and professors should organize themselves to produce remedial math and English curricula that’s based on how students best feel they can develop as writers and mathematicians; the political question of pedagogy emerges here to the fore. Doing so better prepares youth to take on college-level courses and finally transfer to a university or pursue their desired vocation.

As many CCSF students can testify to, this institution provided them a critical space where they could reflect on their own lives and develop into organic intellectuals. The school as it exists is far from this experience generalizing to hundreds or thousands of youth, but it is something to recognize and build upon. This oppressive social system has historically denied workers and students, particularly at community colleges, the tools necessary for them to strategize their own liberation. And we should not expect it to ever do so. The demand to preserve and expand Ethnic Studies courses to provide the space for politicization, better conditions for revolutionary politics, and employment of more conscious professors is about broadening the institution for oppressed people, politically and materially. We must also demand an end to the cuts to childcare programs and an expansion of them, enabling working-class women, many whom are single mothers, to participate in the college and exercise control over them along with childcare workers and students.

Thinking further ahead, what if we demanded and won a large increase in the amount of professors, who, alongside an increased student body, collectively produce curricula and school practices that challenge the racist, sexist, heteronormative, and oppressive social relations our schools reproduce on a daily basis? The purpose is to develop revolutionary consciousness within our educational institutions. Doing so would require the strength in organizational unity and support to stand besides school members under threat of being fired or sued for engaging in these practices.  The ACCJC demands that City College hire more administrators for the underlying reasons of strengthening the control mechanisms to oversee the school’s neoliberal restructuring and to crush the popular organizations that challenge them. Faculty/staff/student control over the hiring of professors, control of the content and form of curricula and the democratic election of department chairs is needed to maintain and defend such gains. This is where we can get a glimpse of what an actual community college might look like, more closely molded to serve the intellectual and material needs of the working-class.

These are tangible methods where students and workers at a community college, like workers at a workplace, can wield some more control over the work process and leverage that power to institute and defend their reforms. As with any reforms in an institution, however, the danger of cooptation and the defanging of struggle are always real. At San Francisco State University, the birthplace of Ethnic Studies programs, the people who led and started them are gone as is its radical essence. They are no longer the place where working class youth of color could access and learn revolutionary theory. The defeat of the 60s and 70s and the separation of a serious revolutionary formation from the working-class leaves us with a reduced Ethnic Studies program led by liberals, even conservatives, and intimately tied to the non-profit industrial complex and the muck of privilege politics.

Unfortunately, there are those amongst the left who see this approach as utopian, anarcho commune space building. This says more about the unimaginative and weak state of the left in the U.S. than about our method. We are not reinventing the wheel here. The Black Panthers in their time saw community colleges in Oakland, particularly Laney College, as places that collectively struggle could transform into a base area of theory and organization, where the community could exercise a level of self-determination and make it relevant to their needs and goals.  For them, it wasn’t simply about being against something, like the closing of a school or cuts to its services, but being for something and implementing that positive vision in practice. For example, the Panthers successfully created Merritt College’s first Black studies program in 1967, with Bobby Seale teaching its first class. In a great article written by Student Unity and Power at Laney College in 2010, they go on, “ In April 1969, the radical newspaper Guardian reported that Chicano students at Merritt won the naming of ‘a chicano member of the Socialist Workers Party head of a new Mexican-American studies department, free textbooks and meals for needy students and increased hiring of third-world people’ when the students ‘barricade[d] the faculty into their meeting room and threaten[ed] the same to the trustees to win the demands.’ This is one of the first examples of direct action at Peralta; it seems that historically, District intransigence makes confrontation necessary.” When the local Board of Trustees threatened to cut services or engage in their shady practices, the Panthers mobilized community/student councils to oversee the process and defend their self-determination and self-management.

This perspective is important to counter organizations that intend to allow or actively push for neoliberal policies in our public institutions. Students Making a Change (SMAC), a CCSF student organization funded by Coleman Advocates non-profit, supports the implementation of budget cuts because they see maintaining accreditation at all costs as the most important thing. Their line is that CCSF doesn’t adequately serve the needs of working-class youth of color and therefore risking losing accreditation by building resistance to budget cuts is not worth it. Their slogan, “Fix the College,” mirrors that of the Board of Trustees, the ACCJC, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other ruling class agents who say that CCSF has fundamental issues which require a round of harsh cuts to teachers, classes, programs, and students. Willingly or not, the youth of color who make up SMAC are being used as the foot soldiers for austerity. It is neoliberalism with a brown face. So, if SMAC calls for restructuring the school and do it in their own twisted right-wing way, and all the Left does is call for its “defense,” we miss out on advancing a revolutionary perspective on structural changes and allow groups like SMAC to monopolize the discourse around “transformation.” In reality, what SMAC proposes will only advance the destruction of working-class communities of color. We need a concrete program to transform, to the ability we can, an institution like CCSF in the interests of its teachers/workers, students, elders, and future generations so we can better confront the struggle to come.

The approach we envision, then, is to stretch out the limits of the capitalist system as much as possible in the long-term. This can only be achieved by a radical and class conscious mass movement that learns through political experience why the capitalist system can never meet our need for liberation. Reforms like a larger and more relevant ethnic studies program and an expanded and flexible childcare system can be beginnings on that path. Why? Because these provide better conditions for the people to organize from and develop new militants; we want to continue on this path until the contradiction between what we want and what is possible under capitalism becomes so unbearable that we cannot live under this system and must smash it. The role of revolutionary militants is to show why workers and students must never let their guard down and say we’ve achieved enough because that is when the ruling class will swoop in like vultures to smash our organizations and ram through austerity plans. The gains we win will be seen as threats by the ruling class and attacked as such so the point is to be prepared for when this happens. As this system decays and exposes its contradictions, the masses will engage in sharper class struggle and be forced to aim their sights on the overthrow of capital and the creation of a new society, or the destruction of their demands and dreams.

City College, as it stands, remains an institution loved by many Bay Area folk for the opportunities it has afforded them, the safe and inclusive spaces for people of color, immigrants, and queer folk, and the caring, nurturing professors. We should recognize this and build on those great practices, challenge the old ones, and strengthen our position on the checkerboard of class warfare.

One response to “Defend and Transform Public Education

  1. Pingback: Are we gonna let the ACCJC and the State punk us? Hell no! | Advance the Struggle

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