Education advocates call for accreditation reform

Legislators and education advocates Friday called for curbs on the powers of college accreditors, who they accused of targeting City College of San Francisco while allowing violations by the for-profit Heald College to go unchecked.

State Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) joined advocates of statewide accreditation process reforms outside the ACCJC’s biannual meeting in Oakland Friday and called for reforms to reign in the commission’s powers before more students, faculty and staff at other colleges across the state are impacted.

Ting has authored two bills that aim to reform the accreditation process.

The proposed legislation and today’s protests outside the commission meeting came after California’s State Superior Court ruled in January that the commission broke the law when it tried to close City College of San Francisco.

The commission also received criticism from the U.S. Department of Education for its treatment of California community colleges in 2014.

Fred Glass, a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, said the issues with the ACCJC go back even further.

According to the California Attorney General, back in 2007 the for-profit vocational operator, Corinthian Schools Inc., was ordered to pay $6.5 million, including $5.8 million in consumer restitution, to settle a lawsuit that alleged the company used false advertising and unlawful business practices by presenting inaccurate salary and employment information to students.

When Corinthian bought Heald College in 2010, the ACCJC became the lead accreditor for the school. From 2010 to 2012, the ACCJC didn’t find any violations at Heald College.

In 2012, when Heald College wanted to become accredited as a four-year college, the ACCJC handed over the school’s accreditation process to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and recommended Heald for full accreditation, according to Glass.

Corinthian was fined another $30 million for similar violations in April and abruptly closed 28 campuses, impacting roughly 16,000 students.

Glass said that the ACCJC oversaw both Heald College and CCSF, yet unfairly pursued the non-profit school and “turned a blind eye” to the continued violations at the for-profit school.

Ting’s bill, AB 1397, would create comprehensive reforms to the accreditation process, Glass said. If passed, it would provide due process, greater objectivity and transparency, including public access to commission meetings.

Currently, commission meetings allow for only 15 minutes of comments from 20 members of the public over a three-day meeting.

Another bill authored by Ting, AB 1385, aims to stop the commission from collecting funds from the colleges it accredits in order to pay off it’s legal fees, much of which was accumulated in the case won against the commission by the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

Glass said that bill would bring an end to colleges having to write “blank checks” to the ACCJC for the commission’s legal fees.

Ting said in a statement released Thursday that 2.1 million students at 112 community colleges in California depend on fair education standards and that legislators need to support those students:

“We need education to be the great equalizer in our society but that role is compromised when education standards are enforced unfairly, arbitrarily, and in secret … We need these reforms to end abuses of power from our accreditor. Sweeping change is needed that put the needs of our students first.”

Ting’s bills offer reforms based on findings about the ACCJC from the California State Auditor, the U.S. Department of Education and a California Superior Court ruling, according to Ting’s office.

Both bills have been approved by the state assembly and now go to the state senate for approval.

Joanne Waddell, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 1521, which represents teachers in the Los Angeles Community Colleges District, said that this is not just a Bay Area issue.

Waddell said that ACCJC teams will visit nine Los Angeles Community College campuses in 2016 and that these proposed reforms to the accreditation process would help ensure that California’s community colleges, including those in Los Angeles County, are subject to a credible peer review process:

“Different rules should not exist for different schools. … Yet, this is common practice. Community Colleges throughout California have been unfairly caught up in this arbitrary system, which is cause for concern.”