Why Black Colleges Need Charter Schools

Why Black Colleges Need Charter Schools

Only 35% of students earn bachelor’s degrees in six years. Why? Because traditional public schools failed to prepare them.

By Allysia Finley

Charter schools are the “polite cousins of segregation,” in the words of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Last year the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a moratorium on charters. Film festivals are screening “Backpack Full of Cash,” a pro-union documentary narrated by Matt Damon that portrays charters as separate and unequal institutions.

Pushing back against these invidious attacks is the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization that represents 47 historically black schools. “We cannot afford this kind of issue-myopia in our society,” the fund’s president, Johnny Taylor, wrote in a syndicated op-ed this fall. “If the NAACP continues to reject the educational opportunities school choice provides them, they risk becoming irrelevant—or worse—an enemy of the very people they claim to fight for.”

Mr. Taylor will step down next month after a seven-year tenure during which he has relentlessly promoted charters as a lifeline for black students and a pipeline for historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. On the heels of the fund’s 30th-anniversary gala last week, Mr. Taylor sat down in a Washington hotel to chat about the challenges HBCUs face and why he thinks parental choice—he doesn’t like the term “school choice”—is a solution.

First on the syllabus is a short history of HBCUs, which were established during the Jim Crow era to educate blacks who were then barred from many colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 authorized federal aid to HBCUs, a program known as Title III. But as states reduced their support two decades later, tuition at public HBCUs was rising. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund was formed in 1987 to provide scholarships to students attending public HBCUs. (Its counterpart for private HBCUs is the United Negro College Fund, established in 1944.)

Lately HBCUs have been struggling with enrollment and recruitment because they no longer have a “captive market,” as Mr. Taylor says. Over the past 40 years, the higher-education landscape has significantly changed as more schools have sought to diversify their student bodies. In 1977, 35% of black college graduates received bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs. By 2015 that had declined to 14%.

Other schools are now offering generous financial aid and superior facilities to recruit black students, while the demographics of “economically fragile” communities have shifted. Five of the Marshall Fund’s members—West Virginia State University, Bluefield State College, Lincoln University, Kentucky State University and the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science—now enroll more white than black students.

“Sometimes you have to be careful what you pray for,” Mr. Taylor says. “You wanted diversity, and guess what happened? You got diversity. We have two schools in Missouri, Harris-Stowe State University and Lincoln University of Missouri. Well, while people are screaming bloody murder for the University of Missouri to be more diverse, guess where it’s going to get its students? It’s cannibalizing our campuses.” Here in the nation’s capital, he adds, “Georgetown is going to Howard to pick off their best students.”

Thus HBCUs tend to educate predominantly low-income populations, while well-to-do and better-educated black students attend more-prestigious schools. That makes it harder for HBCUs to raise money for scholarships and campus improvements. Mr. Taylor says he donates to his alma mater, Florida’s University of Miami, which is not an HBCU: “All of my money goes to Miami. I have no reason to give it to Howard. I didn’t go to Howard.”

A related challenge is low retention. Just 35% of HBCU students graduate in six years, compared with about 60% for all colleges. At seven HBCUs, less than 20% of black students earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

The root problem, Mr. Taylor explains, is that traditional public schools are failing to prepare students. In “economically fragile” communities, many low-income students graduate from high school without basic literacy, and those admitted to HBCUs often need remedial classes. That presents HBCUs with a dual challenge. “When you show up to my college, I’m in trouble and you’re in trouble,” Mr. Taylor says. “I can’t get you through, and the feds are holding me accountable for graduation rates. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you were shafted for 12 years by the secondary-school system—and you were.”

Charter schools, he says, can do better, which would help HBCUs succeed in turn. Many charter networks, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (often called KIPP), have placed a special emphasis on ensuring that their students finish college. Overall, only 9% of students from low-income families earn college degrees within six years; the rate for many major charter networks is three to five times as high.

The dapper and upbeat Mr. Taylor attributes his personal success to having attended a magnet public school—a charter prototype—in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I can tell you now where everyone else in my neighborhood ended up and where I ended up, because I was bused out of my neighborhood,” he says. “My mother wanted me to get a better shot than my public school and my neighborhood.”

Thus Mr. Taylor takes the opposition to such opportunities personally: “The notion that someone sitting at the NAACP’s headquarters in Baltimore could take that choice away from my mother is unacceptable.”

He adds that “I don’t suggest that charters or vouchers or any of the other options are the panacea.” But he insists that if “you know that the traditional public school system is failing your children, to say, ‘I’m not going to do anything but pour more money into something I know is not working,’ should be criminal. And I know that’s a strong word—but it should be criminal because you are stealing children’s lives.”

Several HBCUs have set up charters of their own, which serve as prep schools. “Howard University has a charter school, and the idea is to expose students to Howard University much earlier in their educational life cycle,” Mr. Taylor says. “Nine or 10 of our schools actually operate charters. You have K-12 kids walking onto a college campus every day. So they can envision college as a real option.”

But Americans still need convincing. A poll earlier this year by Education Next showed that public support for charters had dropped over the preceding 12 months, to 39% from 51%. Mr. Taylor attributes the decline in part to the deceptive claim by teachers unions that charter schools are private. They aren’t:

Charters are public schools free from union control and under independent management.

But poor communication by education reformers hasn’t helped. “I don’t like the term ‘school choice,’ ” Mr. Taylor says, “because schools don’t choose children. I believe in ‘parental choice.’ That is a far better phrase. Schools don’t choose children, because if that’s the case, then it buys into this notion that, ‘Well, the kids that I don’t want, I’m not going to accept into my school. I’ll leave them at the public school.’ ”

In the District of Columbia, Mr. Taylor has witnessed firsthand how charter competition impels improvements at traditional public schools. Similarly, he hopes increased competition for black college students will make “the entire HBCU sector step up and respond.”

As an example of that competition he points to Georgia State University, which takes “Pell Grant-eligible kids and graduates them at double the rate of everyone else. The kids are coming out of school faster and with significantly less debt . . . and they have good jobs—relevant jobs to industry.” He believes HBCUs like Clark Atlanta University will have to improve to prevent the likes of Georgia State from poaching recruits. North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU, has boosted its STEM curriculum to compete with nearby Duke and the University of North Carolina.

One impediment to progress, not unique to HBCUs, has been institutional inertia, Mr. Taylor says. Many colleges and faculty have resisted tailoring their curricula to the workforce needs of businesses. So even though companies aggressively recruit minorities, candidates graduate ill-equipped for jobs.

“Just because you finished a master’s degree,” Mr. Taylor says, “if what you learned in your curriculum was not rigorous or relevant, then Silicon Valley looks at you and says, ‘Well, that’s interesting that you have a degree, but it doesn’t work for us. You’re not prepared to do anything.’ ” Faculty at HBCUs need to understand, he adds, that “your syllabus is not totally yours; it has to be a partnership between industry and you the professor.”

The conversation turns to what the Trump administration can do to help HBCUs. Mr. Taylor’s priority is infrastructure: “I’m not necessarily talking bricks and mortar. The most important investment in HBCUs has to be technology—wiring these campuses and positioning them to compete in the 21st century. I don’t need a larger Office of Civil Rights.”

His other request is simple: “Talk with us, learn our community.” Mr. Taylor says “I can’t help myself” from pointing out that the Obama administration “made too many decisions for HBCUs without talking to HBCUs.” He cites the decision in 2012 to reduce eligibility for Pell Grants to 12 semesters from 18. “People say that ‘anybody should finish in six years.’ Yes, if that ‘anybody’ had 12 years of solid K-12 education.”

He says the early signs from the Trump administration are promising. While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in February clumsily referred to HBCUs as “pioneers” in school choice, she quickly clarified her remarks and has since made numerous overtures. She gave a May commencement address at Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University and in August met privately in the Sunshine State with several HBCU leaders.

Last month, Mr. Taylor says, he got wind that the Education Department was preparing changes to Title III’s funding formulas that could cost HBCUs $100 million. “To their credit,” he recalls, “we sent a letter to Secretary DeVos on a Wednesday. Friday she convened a meeting of all of the heads of the HBCU advocacy organizations and announced she was going to grandfather all of the HBCUs in.”

He acknowledges that “I don’t think that we’re going to get some huge appropriation of cash, because it’s a conservative movement.” Still, “I’m optimistic about HBCU issues.”

How does he respond to staff and students who object to engagement with the GOP and the Trump White House? “More than half of our HBCUs sit in Republican congressional districts,” he says. A large majority are in states with GOP legislatures, governors or both. In other words, Republicans hold the purse strings. “If your budget comes from the federal government and the state government, not talking to them is a bad idea,” Mr. Taylor says.

“We are nonpartisan,” he emphasizes before rushing off to give a keynote speech on criminal justice at the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice annual summit. “I hope we all start thinking: What’s in the best interest of the kid? If we let that be sort of our compass, our guiding light, then you don’t care what the union wants. You don’t care about what the NAACP wants.”

Ms. Finley is a Journal editorial page writer.

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