As noted yesterday, one of the new features of this year’s Washington Monthly College Guide is a ranking of the country’s top 50 community colleges. But looking at some of the best of these crucial if often ignored institutions only tells you so much. So in the September/October issue of the Monthly, Haley Sweetlands Edwards looks at some of the worst, which happen to exist in an unlikely area, the San Francisco Bay region.

As Edwards explains, California’s famed three-tiered higher education system (with the University of California system at the top, the Cal State system in the middle, and 112 community colleges with 2.4 million students at the bottom) has suffered massively from budget problems over the last decade, with the community colleges suffering most. But the community college system’s peculiar decentralized governing structure has been arguably an even more fundamental problem:

[The] system of weak state oversight and diffuse, shared local governance works fine in some districts. In others, it’s a big ol’ mess, with monthly district board meetings devolving as often as not into hair-pulling, mudslinging turf wars that feel a little like Robert’s Rules of Order meets Lord of the Flies.

Edwards pays special attention to City College of San Francisco, which is on the brink of losing it accreditation, but is paralyzed by conflicts between a district governing board and a faculty senate that share administrative authority. But she finds that the same sort of problems plague many of California’s community colleges, especially those in the Bay Area:

[B]etween 2003 and 2012, 55 percent (sixty-two of 112) of California’s community colleges were sanctioned by the regional accrediting agency for various shades of mismanagement or fiscal irresponsibility, and forty of those sixty-two were sanctioned more than once—sometimes four, five, six, or seven times in a decade—while the other 45 percent were not sanctioned at all. Although these sanctions are not always reflective of student achievement, they speak to the general culture of management at the local level. There are those districts that have a culture of abiding by the accreditation committee’s demands, and those that don’t, just as there are those that have a culture of serving student needs, and those that don’t.

So Edwards strongly endorses an overhaul in the governing structure of California’s community colleges that would streamline campus-level decision-making and significantly increase accountability to the state along the lines of what the UC and CSU systems already provide.

Check out “America’s Worst Community Colleges,” and see why proprietor Max Linsky read this piece and called Haley Sweetland Edwards “one of the best young journalists in America.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.