Thursday Reading List: Vouchers, HBCUS, and Boosting College Graduation Rates

Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times goes deeper on the Trump administration's voucher plans:

President Trump, returning to a promise that won him cheers on the campaign trail, signaled in his first address to Congress on Tuesday that he will move aggressively to allow more public school students to use tax money to pay for tuition at public charter schools, private schools and even religious schools ... A Department of Education official said on Wednesday afternoon that Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos were considering a number of ways to create a federal school choice program that would offer tax credit scholarships. That would allow individuals and corporations to make tax deductible donations to nonprofit networks of private schools, which then provide tuition scholarships to students. The administration is also considering allowing schools to directly access Title I funds from the Education Department that are used to help support low income students.

Even conservative pundits think that it will be hard to convince Congress to go along with these plans. "Title I funds" are distributed on a formulaic basis to states and districts, and in some places constitute a large portion of school funding. At the hyper-local level, preserving scarce resources for local institutions tends to supersede partisan ideology.

Speaking of politically transcendent issues, Alyson Klein of Education Week heard familiar overtones in President Trump's speech to Congress:

President Donald Trump used his first speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday to frame education as "the civil rights issue of our time"—a line used by other leaders in both parties, including former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. 

The phrase "civil rights issue of our time" has officially ceased to have any meaning. Don't get me wrong, a quality, equitable education is  central to the fulfillment of civil rights in this country. But when an administration deports children with one hand, and makes overtures about civil rights with the other, it's extremely difficult to take the rhetoric seriously.

Betsy DeVos WAS having the worst week ever for a cabinet secretary this week, after she issued comments suggesting that Historically Black Colleges and Universities were born out of "choice," and not - you know - statutorily enforced racist terror and segregation. (Jeff Sessions, though.) Still, Chris Stewart at Citizen Education wants to put Trump's meetings with HBCU leaders in context:

University of Pennsylvania’s Marybeth Gassman, quoted in the Business Insider, says “HBCUs often struggle because they have fewer resources than other colleges — typically due to lower endowments and less money coming in from alumni giving.” The same article points to inequitable funding from government, citing a piece by Donald Mitchell, Jr comparing ”the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s $15,700 in state funding per student” versus “North Carolina A&T University’s $7,800 in state funding per student" ... Now HBCU leaders must pivot and make the best of yet another intricate relationship, this time with an incomparably problematic president who offers thirsty people water for political reasons (see Nixon’s overture to black capitalism for a parallel).

It's important to get more resources into the hands of institutions that have experience and expertise serving vulnerable groups of children. As Meredith Kolodner points out in The Hechinger Report, there are some institutions that perform at much higher levels than others, relative to preparing traditionally underserved students:

Colleges that say they can’t improve graduation rates for their black students because they enroll too many poor students or too many who are academically unprepared are sometimes just making excuses, a new report says ... More than a quarter of colleges and universities have black-white graduation gaps higher than 20 percentage points, but the data also show that improvement is possible, [researcher Andrew] Nichols said. Among the 676 institutions analyzed, 22 percent had a black-white graduation gap of less than 5 percentage points, and at 8 percent of the colleges, black students graduated at the same rate (or higher) as white students. The study lists the top and bottom performing institutions in terms of graduation rates for black students, and offers comparisons between colleges serving similar student populations.

It's worth examining the whole report, which you can find at The Education Trust. Studies like this one reveal that equity is possible, if the right strategies are deployed. Closing gaps in graduation rates requires providing targeted resources and attention to vulnerable students. That sounds obvious, right? 

Obvious? Yes. Easy? No, because institutions receive pressure to spend money on students who are already on track for relative success. It's in situations like these that trite phrases like "a rising tide floats all boats" fall apart. Sometimes, you have to be a little more specific about which boats you hope hope to float a little higher. Have a great day!