The Historical Importance of HBCU’s – A Discussion with Van Jones and Dr. Michael Lomax

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities have received increased attention this week, after a majority of the 104 HBCU presidents accepted an invitation to the oval office to meet with President Trump.

A lot of people weren’t happy with that meeting and a statement from John Silvanus Wilson Jr., president of Morehouse, seems to indicate that the meeting and Trump’s executive order on HBCU’s won’t signal much of a change in funding, or address issues like boosting pell grants or setting up an HBCU innovation fund as the presidents had hoped.

Rather than highlighting the important work that HBCU’s do and have done throughout their existence, the meeting mostly led to social media outrage.

Back in October of 2016, we had political commentator and activist Van Jones as a guest host on the ‘Rock the Schools’ podcast to lead a discussion with Dr. Michael Lomax of the UNCF about the historical and current importance of HCBU’s and a report they released titled “Building Better Narratives in Black Education”.

Instead of getting caught up in social media driven controversy such as the feet-on-couch-scandal, take a listen to the full conversation:

LISTEN: Why is Campbell Brown so damn optimistic about education reform?

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When I arranged for an interview with Campbell Brown I expected to find a guarded television journalist and a person doubly calcified by the toxic swamp that is national education politics.

For years she has tangled with teachers’ unions, politicians, and internet attack artists, so by now she should be a portrait in cynicism.

A few minutes into our conversation I discovered her most annoying characteristic.

She’s an optimist.

I got her to admit my frustration with the “reform” movement’s two steps-forward-two-steps-back battle, but when I offered a dire reading of the tea leave, she refused to join.

That’s not to say she’s a Pollyanna. Far from it. She’s just confident education reform is the common sense mission and once the public sees that they will be won over.

The most pressing issue we discussed was the suspicious absence of K-12 education as an issue in the current presidential campaign.

She agreed that it’s a problem, but she’s more prone to being analytical rather than alarmed.

“You have two different dynamics going on,” she says.

“On the right with Republicans….generally what you have heard from them is ‘look, federal education policy is something that we wanna localize as much as possible, and therefore we don’t really consider education to be a national issue.”

She says the Right is offering “pretty standard fare” about abolishing the Department of Education and returning power to the states.

“That’s all fine and good,” she replies, “I don’t care if that’s what your belief …you still can’t expect to be president of the United States and not be able to articulate a vision for what public education should look like in this country.”

There’s a hint of urgency in her voice, but not warmth too. Brown’s candidates to talk about education in “a thoughtful way.”

It’s one thing to critique the federal power in education, it’s another to “demonstrate to us that you have a vision for how it needs to change.”

So far, “we haven’t heard that from anyone,” she says.

And on the other side of the aisle?  She says it’s “pure politics.”

“Hillary Clinton…she was a big supporter of education reform back in her education days…a vocal supporter of charter schools, and with the endorsement now of the two largest teachers’ unions she’s really dialed that back and you’ve heard her making very, very different statements from the campaign trail.”

Clinton’s rival in the Democratic race fares no better.

“There’s a headline running on CNN right now that says ‘Bernie Sanders doesn’t support private charter schools.’ Well, as you and I both know there’s no such thing as private charter schools….We have major candidates running for president and major news organizations that are perpetuating something that is simply not true.”

When I ask her if she thinks education reform has pushed too hard and given America reform fatigue, she says no. She gives President Obama credit for pushing a strong reform agenda, and she feels reformers need to do a better job of taking stock of progress.

Yet, she admits there were problems.

Implementation of new testing schemes and teacher evaluation in New York led to backlash. School reformers won’t “put the genie back in the bottle.” We should brace ourselves for changes to our favored policies that were implemented poorly.

She warns that this isn’t just a “PR moment that we need to get through.”

Attempts to get Brown to see that anarchy might be the only way out of this mess failed. I argued we’re always only one election away from reversing everything we’ve gained over several years, but she wouldn’t indulge in my darkness.

“I’m more of an optimist on this stuff quite honestly,” she said.

“I think about New York a lot….before Mayor Bloomberg you had no charter school movement in New York City and now it’s massive and impacting so many kids and making such a huge difference. That’s happened in a relatively short period of time.”

It surprises me that even with the pending setbacks in New York, including a Governor who is walking back his support for teacher evaluations and school reform, she chooses to take the long view.

She says “the best thing we can do…as opposed to anarchy, is work really hard to educate people and organize people.”

Brown’s optimism is likely the product of two things.

The first is her relative privilege. She says “I’m very clear about the opportunities that I have had and the opportunities that my kids have had. I worked in television news, when I had children I was in a position to give them whatever kind of education I wanted…”

The second is her empathy for those who have not had the opportunities that she has. As she tells it, she is an accidental school reformer who saw the reality of bad schools through the eyes of a dear friend.

“[T]he thing that opened my eyes to this for the very first time was a close, close friend of mine who worked with me in TV news who had no money, who lived in a neighborhood that was zoned for a failing school and when her kid became school aged she was trying to figure out what to do and literally was trapped…had no choice, and no options, couldn’t afford the Catholic school that was nearby that she was trying to get her kid into.”

Out of desperation Brown’s friend made a deal with someone who lived in a neighborhood zoned into a better school. The mother – a hairdresser – would offer a lifetime of free hair service in exchange for the use of the better address so her daughter could enroll in a great school.

When Brown inquired about the legality of enrolling a child in school using an incorrect address the mother asked her “what would you do if you were me?”

The answer was simple.

It’s what drives Brown’s work today.

Please take a listen to the podcast. A note of warning, I was not in the studio for this show. You will hear that I recorded by phone. Otherwise, it was a great conversation.

LISTEN: What does Michelle Rhee know about education?

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Michelle Rhee. You know that name, right? Since her years in the intense spotlight as a high-profile chancellor of D.C. public schools ended in 2010 (and later her time as CEO of StudentsFirst) she has been enjoying life and living on her own terms. She’s on a corporate board. She’s helping her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, with his education-related initiatives. She still works in support of StudentsFirst. And, she’s been a mom.

I was lucky to have her join me on Rock The Schools to reflect her experience and the state of the movement these days. 

More than anything I was interested in her thoughts about the current state of play for superintendents who are trying to move reform plans in urban districts where this considerable resistance, including Antwan Wilson in Oakland and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. As someone who has been in their shoes, she says “It’s gotten to a pretty sad place when you have good people who are trying to do important work,” but instead of debating the merits of their proposals we devolve into personal attacks on their character.”

You might think she would be bitter. You’d be wrong.

Rhee remains inconceivably positive about her experience as a school reformer, and her interactions with the public – past and present. She says at it’s very worst, like when people were yelling at her in public forums, she felt it was better to deal with community anger rather than apathy.

She sincerely believed – and still believes – that people who disagreed with her vehemently on policy still had kids’ best interests at heart.

I found that really hard to believe.

When I asked her how she processed the hostile – and sometimes racist and sexist – pushback from angry teachers and unionists who still attempt to sully her name, she said “I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about that stuff.”

About the haters she says “I don’t think that’s where most people are.”

Overall, she finds most people are genuinely concerned and willing to listen to logical arguments. Most are in the middle, far from the hostile fringes, and most are open to rational ideas if presented honestly.

That doesn’t mean the anti-reformers aren’t a force to be reckoned. Even if they’re a minority, they are loud and effective in ruining good reform plans.

But, if it hasn’t been clear before, she isn’t trying to win friends as much as act on her conscience to improve outcomes for kids other people forget about.

She says “At the end of the day I have a great husband…and I have a wonderful family and plenty of friends…I don’t need any more people to like me. But what I do need is for this country to live up to its promise to children…across the country going into schools and classrooms, I believe what is happening to kids is really criminal. They are not getting the education that they deserve…if I don’t say something about it….about what some of the causes are and what needs to be fixed…I’m part of the problem.”

Though she speaks with grace about her detractors, there is one pebble in her shoe. She has no patience for people who push back on school reform while keeping their own kids far from the worst performing schools in urban districts.

“You can’t have your kid tucked up in some tony private school or magnet school somewhere and then tell other people ‘you can’t have any choice’ or ‘your kid has to be stuck with an ineffective teacher’ or ‘you have to be trapped in that failing school with no options’,” she says.

Actually, there is a second pebble. It’s a bigger one. She can’t stand the persistent claim that she bashes teachers.

She wants us to be clear: it has never been about ‘bashing’ teachers.

“I don’t believe that teachers are the problem, I believe teachers are the solution to the problems that we have. You cannot look at any of the data that’s out there about teacher effectiveness and what impact that has on student achievement, and say that teachers don’t matter. They absolutely do.”

“Why shouldn’t we as a nation aspire to ensuring that every single kid has a highly effective teacher in front of them every single day?”

Please listen to this great discussion: