Current Focus on HBCUs is Welcomed, but all Money Ain’t Good Money

With the nomination of now Associate Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, media scrutiny quickly focused on just who the Black, female jurist is. Where did she go to school? Who is her husband? Children? What about her parents? Who are they? Where are they from? What do they do?

Of all the queries about the first Black woman nominated to the United States Supreme Court, it was the answers to questions about Justice Jackson’s parents that came as no surprise to us and filled us with a healthy dose of pride.

Her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, were born and raised in Florida during Jim Crow. And both attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), before going on to further their paths as public school teachers and administrators. Justice Jackson’s father, who earned his degree at North Carolina Central University before later earning his juris doctorate from the University of Miami School of Law, was the attorney for the Miami-Dade School Board. Her mother served as a high school principal.

Of course, they attended HBCUs! We know that, and you know that. More than token desegregation of most U.S. colleges and universities did not occur until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965.  And it wasn’t until the 1970s, that we began to see real efforts by previously non-Black institutions to enroll Black students and hire  Black faculty and staff.

Caution: Michael Bloomberg’s $10 Million Donation Comes with Charter School Strings

We urge UNCF leader Dr. Michael Lomax to rethink accepting this donation. Do not allow Bloomberg to pimp the Black community. 

Sure, times have changed. But back then when the choices for Black America were sorely limited, thank goodness we had our own institutions. We are keenly aware that if those schools had not been there, many of us would not be where we are today.

HBCUs have been the foundation of achievement for Black families and a key ingredient to the building of a Black middle class in America since 1837 with the founding of the nation’s oldest HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. 

It is Our Story

Because HBCUs were there, not only were the Browns able to carve out successful paths for their own lives, but in doing so, they built stepping stones that their children would climb on their paths to achievement and triumph.

Though she herself did not attend one, without hesitation, we say that had it not been for HBCUs, there would be no Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson today. 

We know the story well. It is our story. 

It’s the story of parents or grandparents—long before they  would become our parents or grandparents—boarding trains as teenagers and very young adults, with barely enough money in their pockets to cover the first semester of tuition, let alone room and board, yet arriving at an HBCU campus where, somehow, the tuition was pieced together like a puzzle  through scholarships and on-campus jobs, so that they could earn degrees that changed the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Our publisher Beverly McKenna often recounts the story of her father Robert L. Stanton. Born in Arkansas in 1902, he attended Ohio’s Wilberforce University, one of the first three African-owned HBCUs, before going on to earn both a bachelor’s degree in 1925 and a DDS in 1929 from Meharry Medical College.

Despite arriving at Meharry with no money, Stanton’s spirit of determination prevailed. He worked a myriad of jobs  to pay his way through Meharry and went on to practice dentistry for more than 50 years. He also claimed the distinction of being one of the first tow African-Americans elected to the Indiana legislature.

We know, firsthand, that HBCUs have made a difference and paved many pathways to success. So when we see the current focus on HBCUs, though late, we think that it is well-placed and greatly deserved. 

President Joe Biden’s September 2021 executive order re-establishing the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity through Historically Black Colleges and Universities followed by key appointments to the Board of Advisors  on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Howard University graduate and actress Taraji P. Henson and Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, are hopeful signs that the current administration understands the important role that HBCUs have played and continue to play in our nation.

The historic investments being made in HBCUs by the Biden administration include $2.7 billion in relief funds through the American Rescue Plan, $500 million in grant funds directly to HBCUs to help these institutions build their capacity to serve students of color and low-income students,  and  a significant increase in discretionary funding for HBCUs in Biden’s 2022 budget.

The Department of Education also discharged loans from the DOE’s HBCU Capital Financing Program, resulting in 1.5 billion in debt relief for 45 public and private HBCUs.

Doing It Well

HBCUs matter. Always have. Always will. And they are still handling more than their fair share of the heavy lifting when it comes to elevating Black communities and families despite being historically underfunded.

There are 101 HBCUs in this country, comprising three percent of all colleges and universities in the United States. Yet, these schools produce 25 percent of all of the African-American STEM graduates. And while they only enroll 10 percent of all Black students today, they produce 20 percent of all Black college graduates. Additionally, more than 50 percent of today’s African-American teachers and 70 percent of African-American doctors and dentists are HBCU graduates. 

HBCUs have not only excelled at producing Black teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and the like; they also nurture and produce some of the best Black athletes in the country—Black athletes who are all too often overshadowed by Black and white athletes from larger institutions where the athletic programs, alone, have $100 million and $200 million budgets—budgets for sports programs as large and sometimes larger than the entire operating budget of many HBCUs.  

But with more high-profile Black coaches, like former NFL players Deion Sanders and Eddie George, himself an HBCU graduate, choosing to coach at HBCUs, and more standout prep players choosing to play at HBCUs, the world of professional sports is now paying more attention to HBCU athletes than it has in nearly 50 years. 

In 2022, scouts from all 32 National Football League teams attended the first HBCU combine, which featured 40 of the top-layers from historically Black institutions.

And all of this is wonderful because not only is the heightened focus on HBCUs greatly deserved, it is greatly needed. Still, it’s not anything we at The New Orleans Tribune did not already believe and nothing we haven’t said before. We have and will forever sing the praises of HBCUs—FOREVER.

But all money ain’t good money, and there is, quite frankly, some attention that our cherished institutions could do without.

All Money Ain’t Good money

And that sums up the way we feel about former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $10 million donation from his Bloomberg Philanthropies to the United Negro College Fund. You see, the money is designed to jump-start a UNCF/Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative to create new public charter schools at HBCUs.

We urge UNCF leader Dr. Michael Lomax to rethink accepting this donation. Do not allow Bloomberg to pimp the Black community. 

New Orleans is Ground Zero for this charter school experiment that has taken place in education. It is the site of the only all charter public school system in the country. And Bloomberg had a hand in that. Let’s not forget that he has been a part of the infusion of out-of-state campaign donations that have shaped both the local school boards and state boards of education here and in other cities and states. The financial support he and other outsiders have given to pro-charter school candidates at the local and state level has effectively silenced anyone not prepared to jump on the so-called reform bandwagon. 

Meanwhile, the corporate-driven reform effort and the charter school push has failed. More than 70 percent of our students are not performing at grade level. Our schools are highly segregated by race, class, and educational advantage. One of the most telling statistics of this failure is the fact that 26,000 New Orleanians between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted by the census as “disconnected” because they are neither working nor in school. These are children and young people that have been lost in and abandoned by a dysfunctional school “system” operated by corporations more concerned about making profits than educating every child.

Still, no one responsible for pushing this so-called reform and charter schools seems to have the intestinal fortitude to admit that it does not work. Here we are, 17 years deep in an experiment that has failed us and our children miserably. Not only does Bloomberg want more charter schools, he wants to make our institutions co-conspirators. 

If Bloomberg were genuinely interested in helping HBCUs or preparing and empowering future Black teachers or improving public education in general, there are other ways in which the UNCF and its member institutions could benefit from $10 million. It could be used to fund  scholarships for education majors at HBCUs. Those funds could be used to support education degree programs at those schools. Remember, HBCU are already producing 50 percent of the America’s Black teachers. Why not support that work?

The last thing we need is some pro-charter school philanthropist making a strings-attached donation to HBCUs that results in more unaccountable charter schools in our communities. We definitely do not need HBCUs used as incubators for the corporate-driven education reform movement that has failed miserably here in New Orleans. 

We have reported the failure of this reform repeatedly. We will say it again because it hasn’t changed. The vast majority of charter schools in New Orleans are C, D and F schools. No matter how the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state legislature or the state department of education fiddles with the data, the numbers do not lie. And based on the standards that were intact before Hurricane Katrina, charter schools in New Orleans are doing worse than the traditional  public schools they replaced. 

We definitely don’t need more of our best and brightest, well-trained Black teachers led into the charter-school funnel, where they are often discouraged, if not banned from unionizing. 

We have to ask ourselves—do our storied institutions really need Michael Bloomberg’s attention or this $10 million that badly? 

And we are definitely questioning why, instead of bolstering education degree programs at HBCUs to help produce even more qualified, certified teachers that positively impact educational outcomes in public school classrooms throughout our nation, is the goal to create more charter schools and to send more HBCU grads to teach in them?

We implore UNCF to reconsider accepting this donation. In fact, we will be abundantly clear here because, well, SOMEBODY HAS TO SAY IT: Dr. Lomax and the UNCF should to let Michael Bloomberg keep his $10 million “gift” if it comes attached to strings that foster the proliferation of charter schools across our communities. 

Let’s not make sacrificial lambs out of our people and our institutions. 

Surely, we have sacrificed enough already.

We are also encouraging more members of our community, HBCU graduates or otherwise, to make financial contributions to HBCUs and organizations like UNCF with the hope that the more we support and strengthen our own institutions, the less they will have to rely on outside contributions, especially those that come with provisos and conditions that do more harm than good.

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