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Is the Free City College Law Really Gonna Happen—or Is It Just an Election-Year Gimmick?

Peering around the corners of Jane Kim's Free City program.

Scene from a march for City College in 2013, during its battle with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.


Last week Supervisor Jane Kim announced a big, splashy plan to make City College free for San Francisco residents. The idea, which Kim rallied for on the steps of City Hall, has a pleasingly familiar ring: The battle cry of "Free City," as her still-being-ironed-out program is nicknamed, echoes the calls for free education issuing from the White House's America's College Promise and any microphone Bernie Sanders has lately been holding. “We want to be the first city in the country to make [community] college free for all residents, regardless of age or income,” Kim says, pointing to programs in Oregon, Tennessee, and Chicago that have more strings attached. Unlike these programs, Free City would make tuition—about $1,100 per year for full-time students—free for all San Francisco residents, not just recent high school graduates. By its inclusivity alone, Kim’s plan may be the most generous in the country. 

For a supervisor currently seeking a state senate seat, a free college platform delivers an excellent talking point, not to mention an occasion for a galvanizing rally just two days before state senate opponent Scott Wiener's own legislative accomplishment, fully paid parental leave, was due to be signed into law by Mayor Ed Lee.

Free college sure sounds like a progressive slam dunk, but the way it's being crafted suggests that it could very well have an expiration date. To be sure, no legislation has yet been introduced, so it's inherently hard to pin down. But here's what we know so far:

• Free City would make tuition free for San Francisco residents, who currently make up approximately 20,000 of City College's roughly 70,000 students (not all students are city residents, and many take noncredit courses, which are already gratis). 

• For low-income students who already get free tuition, the program would cover up to $1,000 annually in education-related expenses such textbooks, transportation, and childcare. 

• The college controller’s office, working with Kim, estimates the annual cost of the program at $12.8 million. Dividing by 20,000 students, that works out to $640 in spending per student per year—which in a ballpark sense checks out. Because many students are part-time, not every tuition bill hits the full $1,100.

• The law relies on passing a ballot measure in November that would fund the free tuition. The ballot measure would raise taxes on sales of commercial properties and homes above $5 million. According to an estimate by the City Controller's office, the added tax would bring in, on average, $26.8 million per year.

That sounds like more than enough to cover a $12.8 million annual expenditure. So we're good, right? Not so fast. In boom years, no problem—a transfer tax on luxury properties would more than cover the tab for free City College. But in bad years—like 2009—the numbers will play out much differently. According to that same Controller estimate, Kim's transfer tax increase would have brought in a scant $3 million in 2009, and less than $10 million in 2010.

According to Kim legislative aide Ivy Lee, boom-year surplus would act as a rainy-day fund for lean years. But the surplus could also be game for other uses, such as, say, affordable housing. That lack of budgetary certainty doesn't bother Team Kim: "If this transfer tax generates the number of dollars we expect," says Lee, "we won't come close to using all the revenue." But wait, don't the leftovers need to go into a rainy-day fund? "Sure, but what the amount is is up in the air," she says. So we have an up-in-the-air expenditure that won't detract from other uses, by its very up-in-the-air-ness. Lee is unruffled by this, because it's too soon to know the exact cost of Free City. "We want to have better numbers," she says. "The 12.8 million is an estimate. We want to drill down and make sure have best numbers possible." Comforting.

Here's the big catch, according to City Hall watchers: Even if the new revenue is sufficient to cover a (ballpark!) $12.8 million Free City program from year to year, there's nothing about Kim's proposal that requires the city to actually spend it on Free City. Unlike a set-aside or dedicated tax, which tie a new funding stream to a particular use, Kim's transfer tax lands squarely in the General Fund, no strings attached. According to Lee, the legislation will mandate an annual hearing to assess City College enrollment levels and identify the level of funding students need. Great, a hearing! But it can't actually require any funding to come through. Locking in the funding for City College would be a tougher battle, by the way: Two-thirds of voters would need to pass such a ballot measure in November. The current funding proposal, though weaker, would need to win over only a simple majority of voters. 

Then there's this problem: What if Blackbelt Jane wins her state senate race? Sure, she's on the Board of Supes now and this legislation is her baby, but what's to stop a future board from diverting this cash to another use? Lee acknowledges this possibility. "A future board could say, 'We don’t care about City College, and we’re going to discontinue this,'" she says, "but that would be that future board’s prerogative." 

Play that out a few years and you could get a situation like this: If a full-time City College student took two years to complete a degree, she could, in theory, enter college with funding and lose it partway through, based on that future board's prerogative. For part-time students who take longer to finish, the uncertainty could be even greater.

When pressed about the logic of this, Lee hedges: "It isn't off the table that we'd put something on the ballot to mandate [funding]. It's still something being considered, but we’d like the board and the mayor to collaborate on this and to say, 'We intend to make this proposal a reality.'" 

Which is a lot different from passing a ballot initiative that makes it one.


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