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What happens when the world’s largest retailer builds schools in black communities?

Rosenwald Schools

Pop quiz: which of the world’s largest retailers was the first to make enormous philanthropic investments in the cause of building new schools to educate poor black children?

It’s a trick question. My bet is that your mind quickly thought of Walmart and the proliferation of charter schools.


Well, the Walton family was not the first to commit a significant fortune to building a heat map of independently run schools.

Long before contemporary charter schools started lunging out of the reform kettle like academic popcorn it was Sears that provided the big dollars to fund the growth of new schools in poor black communities.

Yes. That Sears.

First, some context. The early twentieth century was rough on America’s black people. Economically. Politically. Socially. It was a trying time. And the one avenue to betterment, education, was closed to us. Black folks couldn’t steal an education through the systems controlled by white local education authorities in the backwaters of the first world. Most blacks at the time were southern, rural, and struggling to make any progress in hostile societies. It would be generous to call their educational opportunities inferior. The schools that existed were incurably hampered by inadequate facilities, lack of essential supplies, and purposeful neglect.

As a result…

…white-run public institutions were not held accountable for these failures since blacks lacked political representation. As a consequence, black born in the South between 1880 and 1910 completed 3 fewer years of schooling than their white counterparts. While both groups made absolute gains, blacks experienced no relative progress over this 30-year period.  – Daniel Aaronson, Bhashkar Mazumder, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

Hungry for education, and seeing it as liberation, the black community responded to racial aggression the way it always has. It produced its own life-saving solutions.

In previous years there were “freedmen schools” and intergenerational education collaboratives where community members invested their limited funds, sparse time, and incredible passion to teach the young and old alike to read, write, and compute. Temporary northern teachers, mostly white women from missionary aid groups, came to teach. Northern philanthropist funded the imperfect movement. Government did what government does, often poorly, to help.

Still, those efforts never produced anything approaching the scaling up of educational quality that would take place when black self-help theory collided with philanthropic opportunity.

It happened in 1913 when Booker T. Washington convinced Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears & Roebuck, to aid the countless southern black families that were trapped socially, politically, and economically because access to meaningful education was nonexistent. As a pragmatist, Washington knew there were a million ways to address the numerous grievances black folks held, but education was an expedient and faithful weapon to hack through the most common debilitating condition: poverty. His pitch to Rosenwald resulted in a matching grant program that funded construction of black school houses across the south. It validated both man’s belief in hard work, self-help, and education as a means for combating racial inequity. Their partnership started with a handful of schools near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but when their building surge ended there were 5,300 schools in 15 states.

 In 1912, as part of a much larger philanthropic effort, Rosenwald gave $25,000 to the Tuskegee Institute. At the suggestion of Tuskegee’s president, Booker T. Washington, part of this money was used to build six schools in rural Alabama. Pleased with the result, in 1917, Rosenwald established a challenge-grant program that led to the construction of nearly 5,000 schools throughout the rural South. Rosenwald hoped to build a school in every rural county in the South. By 1928, one in five schools for Black students in the South was a Rosenwald school. The schools provided space for more than 600,000 students. The program ended in 1932 with Rosenwald’s death. – The Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education

Here is a map showing the reach of the Rosenwald schools.

Rosenwald Gap Closing II

Rosenwald Schools Across the South

Rosenwald schools were not the proverbial “silver bullet.” They didn’t cure every social ill or magically deconstruct centuries of crushing white power. Life in the post-reconstruction south was still harsh as it had always been. But the “Rosenwald” schools offered safe space and reprieve from injustice. They were little monuments of self-care, hope, and freedom. And, in the end, they introduced something that had been foreign to black communities: a stable platform for self-improvement, political empowerment, and social mobility. These were more than school buildings, they were collectively built assets that inspired communal aspirations and accountability.

Black students often had to walk several miles to their schools, sometimes passed on the road by school buses carrying their white neighbors to their better-equipped schools, but when the black students arrived, Rosenwald schools were a haven from prejudice. Their black teachers and principals were loving and supportive. Many children knew their parents and neighbors had raised money and in some cases even done the physical work of building the schools. – Stephanie Deutsch writes (“You Need a Schoolhouse“)

The spread of better schools was a game changer. It raised the stakes for what was possible and what black communities should expect for their children (and themselves as lifelong learners). The buildings were modern for their times and well appointed with books, furniture, and learning materials. Teachers were recruited and given guarantees of minimum salaries, new homes, and professional development. Suddenly, a quality education was within reach of marginalized black communities at an unthinkable scale.

One notable feature of the Rosenwald grant program was its requirement that all local parties be vested in the success of the schools. One third of funding came from philanthropy (Rosenwald and his allies), one third from local education officials, and one third from the black community itself. Drawing on Washington’s example, where industrial students made the bricks and designed and built the building that they learned in, the Rosenwald schools were produced by the labor of black community members who physically and financially built the schools their children would enter. That’s an incredible level of engagement that exists in a place far remote from the facile concepts of parent “engagement” or “involvement” that we obsess over today. Unlike contemporary education politics, where the sum total of the “democratic” ideal of schooling is the debatable power of community members to “elect” school board members who will most often succumb to the political bureaucracy rather than represent the black or brown electorate, parents of Rosenwald students had direct power over the care and management of their schools from day one. This unusual power gave them the ability to define education for themselves and their community.

It’s a power missing from every school reform discussion we have a century later. Anti-reformers argue with a logic that results in them remaining in complete control, overseeing the perpetuation of the traditionally oppressive educational apparatus. Reformers counter with a logic that results in them owning the new and improved apparatus, and then offering subleases to marginalized community members. Neither “side” of the debate is ready to envision a world where black and brown communities are the mortgage holders of their own system of schooling.

Like Washington, we must pick our allies wisely, pragmatically, and always with the understanding that they are routinely impaired by their inability to recognize the limits of their cognitive superiority. It was that way with abolitionists, and then civil rights workers of the 1960’s; and it remains the same with today’s fighters for better schools

Our friends in the school reform movement today might find the Rosenwald schools to be a jaunty little story, especially since it highlights a sort of historic precedence for the public/private partnerships that drive the prospering of charter schools and, perhaps, the missionary zeal of Teach For America. But, a nice story is not enough for them (rightfully so). The inclination of these data champions will be to ask “what were the results”?

They will want to know if the Rosenwald schools made a difference?

According to a rigorous study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago the answer is “yes.”

…over a moderately short period of time between the world wars, the southern racial education gap declined markedly. While no single explanation likely accounts for this rapid convergence, we show that the Rosenwald Rural Schools Initiatives is a significant contributor, explaining 40 percent of the narrowing of the racial education gap among the cohorts we study. Moreover, the program stimulated migration to better labor market opportunities in the North. In sum, the Rosenwald initiative highlights the large productivity gains that can arise when substantial improvements to school quality and access are introduced to relatively deprived environments. The conclusion is accentuated by the especially large gains measured in communities that were contending with the worst pre-Rosenwald educational conditions.

So, a partnership to build independently run schools in marginalized communities did make a difference. Even more so in the communities that had it the worst. That example should not be lost in the barbs and stings exchanged by those fighting for the soul of public education today. For black folks, “public education” has taken many different forms and we should heed our history, and resist the trappings of anyone else’s definitions.

We would do well to remember that history is at all times rich with context for the work we do now because so often our talk about school reform and educational justice lacks the important perspective that exists beyond the last decade.  Too often it seems national commentators are unaware they are rehashing the “negro problem” debate, and repeating the same level of thinking that causes said “problem.” They speak confidently about what is best for poor children of color without realizing they have no idea.

Their biggest failing is the failure to consult history – specifically, black history, which is full of inventive, successful, meaningful examples illustrating a path for oppressed people to save themselves.

This should be our message: “We are the answer, not the problem. Your systems are the problem, not our salvation.”

As many in the white educational hegemony continue to funk up the room with the foggy claims of “privatization” and “neo-liberalism” and other college-derived and privilege protecting language devices acquired from, Truth Out, and Counterpunch, which are basically hipster outlets bought off to defend the economic right of a new breed of vocationalist, obstructionist overseer, the truth will speak softly through the relevant and honestly counter-cultural case studies like Rosenwald schools.

Damn your precious liberal values, we need an education whether you can pay your mortgage by its administration or not.

Likewise, as the proponents of reform design the blueprint for our educational uplift in laboratories and board rooms where few of us exist, and where the good intentions and collegiate brilliance of the architects are deemed to be proxy for material inclusion of the oppressed, the real solution will sit quietly and obviously behind the screens displaying the well-prepared PowerPoints with all their fancy chevrons and bullet points, waiting to be discovered by the first of them to rebuke their terminal chutzpah and accept the good news of history.

The call of the past is inescapable, but the journey to a positive, alternative future is not. Only those with vested reasons for maintaining injustice will fail to listen.

And that, of course, is nothing new. That’s history too.

For more perspective, see the video and study below.

Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South from Virginia Historical Society on Vimeo.


Rosenwald and Black Achievement


Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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