Inside the Movement to Make City College Free Again

Starting this fall, for the first time in years, tuition at City College of San Francisco will be free for city residents.

The idea for Free City didn’t come out of thin air. The deal Mayor Ed Lee, District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and advocates struck in February to allocate $5.4 million each year for tuition costs had its roots in the not-so-distant past when public education was more or less free.

Last year, American Federation of Teachers 2121 President Timothy Killikelly and other members approached Kim with the idea of offering free tuition at CCSF while they were discussing the fate of its Civic Center campus.

“I grew up in New York and the first year I went to University of New York in 1975, I did not have any tuition,” Killikelly said.

As the number of community colleges around the country increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s, tuition remained free in many states. California community college classes were free until 1983.

In California, the transformation coincided with “a loss of revenue from Prop. 13, certain tax cuts that became really popular in the Reagan era, [and] the idea of the ‘fee for user’ charges; that if you’re going to college, you’re the one that’s benefiting,” Killikelly said.

Although the Civic Center campus proved difficult, Free City gathered momentum. Kim’s office even had a revenue source for it in Prop. W, a proposed increase of the transfer tax, a tax paid when a property — in this case, worth more than $5 million — is sold.

The Controller’s Office projected that the tax will bring in $44 million a year on average over the next ten years.

Killikelly and the union proposed using about $13 million of the Prop. W funds to pay for Free City. The rest of revenue will go to the city’s General Fund.

Since transfer taxes can’t be specified to one project, the Board of Supervisors passed a motion supporting the use of Prop. W funds on Free City, if the tax increase passed — which it did on Nov. 8, 2016, with 61.93 percent voter support.

Although the Prop. W funding was lined up, Free City was not a done deal. In the wake of national election, City Hall officials were worried that President Donald J. Trump would leave San Francisco with a large budget deficit by eliminating funding for Sanctuary Cities and other programs.

Moreover, City Hall had to contend with the failure of Prop. K, a proposal to increase sales tax rate to bring in $150 million.

As a result, Free City was trimmed back to only include San Francisco residents while reducing other proposed expenses like giving grants to poor students.

Lee and Kim reached a deal on the free tuition plan on Feb. 7, allowing the city to spend $5.4 million annually on tuition fees that students used to pay starting in Fall 2017.

“We would hope that now that it’s clear to everybody that City College is here to stay, because the accreditation crisis is over and now people can come for free,” Killikelly said. “We would hope that that would boost enrollment.”

Registration for Fall 2017 is open until Aug. 18. Visit for more information.

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