Ep. 402: The Rosenwald Schools

February 29, 2024

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, Robert Enlow, CEO and President of EdChoice, talks with Curtis Valentine, co-director of the Reinventing America Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. They discuss the Rosenwald Schools and a number of other topics including how education was formed and started, our current public education system and its impact on communities of color.

Robert Enlow: Welcome. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to EdChoice Chats. I’m really excited to be here with Curtis Valentine. We’re going to have a wonderful, robust conversation about a number of topics including how education was sort of formed and started our current public education system and how its impact on communities of color. [inaudible 00:00:23] Rosenwald schools, and have a description of that. And then sort of thinking about the challenges in the community and how do you go forward from that? What’s the best ways to think about that?

But before we do that, I’m Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice. So grateful you are all joining us. And I’m joined by Curtis Valentine. Please introduce yourself and some of the hats you wear.

Curtis Valentine: Thank you for inviting me. I’m glad to be in Indy. Curtis Valentine, I’m the co-director of the Reinventing America Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, which is a DC based think tank. I’m also a professor at the University of Maryland College Park in education policy department. And recently co-founded a nonprofit, Real Men Teach, a national effort to recruit and retain men of color in education.

I’m actually writing a book now called Real Men Teach, which is highlighting the role of men in education dating back to the 18th century. And the evolution of education and educators throughout my lifetime.

Robert Enlow: So that’s actually… Let’s start there. Since [inaudible 00:01:15] understanding the Real Men Teach. There was a change. Men used to be the primary teachers in the classroom. What happened?

Curtis Valentine: Well, if you go back to… Again, I’ve done some research in my life and found out that I have close connections to probably one of the foremost male educators in this country. General John Chavis was the first African-American to ever attend college in America, ever. My full name is Curtis Chavis Valentine.

He attended Princeton University in 1794. Eventually made his way back to North Carolina and began educating black and white students in his home and was able to make a living that way. One of his students, white students, will end up becoming the US Senator from North Carolina. And so the role of men in education dates back to the 18th century. But also sadly, the right for him to teach, particularly white students was taken away, are on the same time of the Hampton Rebellion. And in that turns rebellion.

And so the idea that having men very close to white students obviously was one that was frowned upon. You fast forward to emancipation and the growth of historically black colleges that we’ll talk about as well. You started seeing this really thirst for education, this thirst for learning that I think always existed in people of color and African-Americans even before emancipation.

And that reflected in the tremendous push towards getting into schools of education, which were really the primary purpose of HBCUs. It was sort of to train, as they say, preachers and teachers. It was religion and education.

But if you fast forward to the point where my grandparents, my mother, the majority of their teachers were men. But you have obviously this push towards women getting into education, women getting college degrees and becoming educators. But you also at the same time, saw a pay for teachers going down, which many people correlate with level of sexism.

And I think for Real Men Teach and others, it’s really to tell the history of an education that it’s not sort of a woman’s job as some would say. But that the role and impact of men in students’ lives has a dramatic impact on student achievement, on attendance, on sense of self and on long-term growth within college, out of college and eventually into the teaching profession.

So we’re sort of coming in a full circle moment and telling the story is really important. This is why podcasts like this is so important.

Robert Enlow: The Free Mind will never be bound, right? That’s such an… You’re a professor of education history as well. So if you look at the origins of education in this country in America, not everywhere else, but look at some of the first original laws. So the first law, I always have a quiz and say, “What was the first education law in America?” Right? 1697, the Old Deluder Satan Act. There’s this whole conversation about what is the purpose of education as you run through the different periods of time.

When we got to sort of the modern building of K-12 education, sort of late mid 1800s to the late 1800s, what happened and what was its impact? And as it was established as a structure, how did it help and harm communities of color?

Curtis Valentine: Well, the role of education, if you go back pre emancipation, you’re thinking most people are educated in a private setting, right? In their home, they had a tutor, under a tree. You had somebody in your family who could read. It was sort of like a very immediate, my cousin could read to this point. We’ll get to that point and then we’ll figure out after that.
Emancipation happens. You have the Freeman’s bureau, you have folks coming south saying, “Okay, we do need an educated emancipated community of African-Americans.” But at the same time, when they came down, they found that African-Americans had already been starting schools, had been gathering. Some cases, even to the extent that where you have former plantation owner’s kids having to work now. So they’re going into the fields. So that education is not as important as it is even to African-Americans, which is quite ironic.

That being said, you do see that the government’s role in education saying that we do want to start creating a system of education. This idea of the horseman and all the things of saying, “Hey, we do want and do need an educated community,” dramatically changed how and where education went. So now you have people picking winners, people identifying where money’s going to come from, allocation of resources. And it really just blew to where we are now, which is just sort of this sense of local taxes, funding local education, taxation based off of housing values that go back generations from redlining and housing covenants. All the things that a lot of these communities are based on that we’re still sort of building education on.

And so those folks who aren’t from America and come in… And I’ve done work in foreign countries like Poland and Finland and Canada. They’re kind of baffled about how we still fund education based off of local tax revenue that are historically racist and inequitable, and then try to put a little band-aids on it to fix it up. But at the foundation, it’s quite inequitable.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. This connection of where you live with where you learn, and that’s where the funding is. That entire structure being derived from the [inaudible 00:06:20] of education system in many ways. During the rise of industrialism, one of the favorite things I like to say is, “Why is there a bell in schools? Because they wanted people to get used to the factory whistle.” Right?

So this conversation that we organized education around an industrial model versus actually a thinking model and a free model.

Curtis Valentine: Or summer breaks. That bit about an Agrarian calendar. You got to get folks out into the field. You got to get the crop and pull… I mean, that is something that at least my parents, grandparents really grew up on that calendar. And we’re still under that same calendar.

Robert Enlow: That’s right. And then, so if you think about the impact of where you live determining often the sort of quality of your education, that’s one of the main pillars of, I would say, a really tragic system. Which is you can argue about whether you want compulsion, right? Everyone should go. You can argue about whether you want it free at the point of delivery. But when you start talking about it’s based on where you live, there’s this real challenge to, particularly communities of color and certainly communities of lower income.

But there were examples throughout history that went against that, particularly in community of colors like Rosenwald schools. And so tell our viewers, what are Rosenwald schools? How do they start? What happened?

Curtis Valentine: Well, I mean, I’m often asked about, “Curtis, tell me some new innovations in education moving forward, give some new ideas.” And I kind of disappoint people. I say, “Well, we got to go back before we go forward.”

Robert Enlow: That’s right.

Curtis Valentine: The idea that Julius Rosenwald, who himself was not formally educated. This sort of self-made in the traditional sense of Jewish American, grew up in factories in New York, eventually makes his way to become the CEO President of Sears Roebuck. And for those who… Your listeners who are a little younger, just think Amazon a hundred years ago. And when I say, I’m not exaggerating, it’s literally mail order garments. You send…a catalog.

Robert Enlow: The first one, right?

Curtis Valentine: First one.

Robert Enlow: First mail order… It’s huge.

Curtis Valentine: Yeah, it’s Amazon in paper form. But also there’s some innovation and liberation that, because… In many cases, African-Americans could not go into stores, try on clothes. And so you do allow African-Americans to have the same access, almost the same products as whites without having to deal with the going in and out of the stores that obviously-

Robert Enlow: But you had layaway on top of that, right?

Curtis Valentine: All those things. So 1911, Booker T. Washington, who at that point in time was probably the most popular African American in the country, who’s really… Probably argue that. Meets Rosenwald, invites him to Tuskegee, Alabama. And instantly Rosenwald sees connection and begins to invest in Booker T. Washington’s long-term vision. Who no one know that only four years later, Booker T. Washington would die.

But he’s planning to see this saying, “I have this university, but many of the students are coming to my institution are not necessarily college ready. Not because they’re incapable of doing it, but because where they’re coming from there are no K12 systems. Can you help me do that?” And so in the first year, he’s funding schools. Second year… And over the course of from 1913 to 1932, over 5,000 schools at one point in time, one in three African-American students are attending a Rosenwald school.

But the beauty of it is that you’re really allowing local communities to choose their own fate. This level of self-actualization of obviously you’re coming in and bringing some seed funding, I would say. Because in many cases, the Rosenwald Fund, which is money, which was a third of what it took to build the school, was in some cases the smallest amount. Right?

So I’m a descendant of a Rosenwald co-founder. The school costs a little less than $3,000 to build, but the Rosenwald Fund only donated about $900. Another third came from my family and other families who sort of pulled together their life savings and things that they could donate. And then the third came from local government. Which is again, you start seeing government coming in. But at the same time, that one third was nowhere near what they were giving to white schools. Right?

And so you have this sense of, okay, we are playing a direct role in our children’s future. We’re the ones who are actually building the school with our own hands. We’re donating the land, we’re cooking the lunches, we’re building up, creating the bus contracts. All the things that I think this community, my community was waiting for, always had the potential to do. But now we have the power to do it.

And that for me is one that I think moving forward, if we look at where we are now, how do we give that power and opportunity to communities that I believe are waiting for that opportunity. They’re waiting to be energized. They’re waiting to be activated in a way that they haven’t been in a generation.

Robert Enlow: Well, let’s come back to that. What I would call philanthropy as catalyst, but directed by someone who lives on the ground, right? ‘Cause I think that’s a real challenge in our philanthropic community right now in education. So let’s make sure we get back to that.

But what did the Rosenwald schools mean in the black community? What was the evolution? You had this incredible experience. You have all these people going, what was the impact? And so who were some of the heroes and who are some of the people that came out of that and what happened to it in the end?

Curtis Valentine: In a word, freedom. I mean, that’s the word I think that comes to mind when you have the opportunity to fully understand who you are, be taught by people who look like you, to sort of choose what you’re taught. A lot of the freedoms that I think right now we don’t have. Right? Length of the school day, even through the school year, we mentioned this sort of agrarian calendar. That calendar in a lot of places was also chosen by the people who actually live there.

So where we are now is one that necessarily was not at least in its initial form, government regulated. But it was people saying, “Okay, in order for us to fund this school, we do have to know where our bread is buttered.” Which is through the cash crops that my family were able to create.

I also talk about my own family being able to generate revenue from this. Meaning my great uncle started a bus company and hired his own kids to drive the bus. That allowed him to fund eight kids to go to college. My great aunt, his sister-in-law, eventually, who prepared lunches, they would start our own restaurant. And so you have this economic freedom, you have this intellectual freedom, and you have this sense of if you just sort of give us what we’re due. Which is the tax money we’re paying out, because most of these folks were actually paying taxes at the same time, only getting a fraction of it back. And in many ways to kind of get out of our way. We are more than capable of fulfilling our dreams.

Robert Enlow: So this education innovation leading to an economic revolution, right, an economic… So it’s like imagine trying to start a bus company as a small family business right now. It’s impossible. School bus company would be regulated out of existence. Who were some of the heroes that came out of the Rosenwald schools? And you mentioned one of your mentors. I’d love to hear more about that.

Curtis Valentine: Well just want to recognize people like John Lewis, Maya Angelou attended Rosenwald Schools. We also think about, Rosenwald also created these pipelines into HBCUs that allowed HBCUs to thrive at a time when enrollment was not meeting the demand. And so you think about… Again, my particular Rosenwald school, my great-grandparents helped start, was closely connected to St. Paul College, which is in Lawrenceville, Virginia. The founder of St. Paul College, also co-founded the Rosenwald School. He was going to communities in and around the HBCUs to identify schools that could be pipelines into the HBCU. Most Rosenwald schools are closely connected to an HBCU, probably within 20 or 30 miles of one. Because they understand the back and forth of recruiting, ensuring that students at the K12 level were prepared for college, trained to become teachers, and then moving right back into those schools.

They partnered with other groups like the Genes Foundation, which was a Quaker woman out of Pennsylvania who… Just think TFA of a generation ago. Right? You’re training people to actually go into these Rosenwald schools to make sure that they have proper pedagogy and curriculum and things like that in lesson planning. But all those innovations, most of which are not government led. Those are all sort of philanthropic and people led and driven by the folks who generation earlier people said, “We’re incapable of learning.” And didn’t want to learn. A generation later, we have intellectuals, we have universities, we have authors, we have the arts movement, many of which Rosenwald also helped fund.

So a portion of the money come 1928, he dies in ’32. 1928 to 1948, he started funding fellows. Rosenwald fellows included James Weldon, Johnson, Langston Hughes, I mean Marian Anderson, I mean you name it they’re funding the next generation of arts. In addition, they also funded lawyers for the Brown v. Board of Education decisions. So all these folks, including my mentor, George Haley and George Haley’s father, Simon Haley, these resources that the Rosenwald Fund was able to inject into the African American community from 1913, pretty much all the way up to 1948, is really on the foundation in which I sit. And most HBCUs sit today.

Robert Enlow: So let’s get to this, because they started in many ways because education wasn’t being fairly distributed in communities of color, right? And so these Rosenwald schools see kids, see an opportunity, create an opportunity at the local level in partnership with philanthropy, not dictated by philanthropy, had this huge impact. They go away. And we’ve seen this really challenging environment be recreated for all Americans. I mean, only 40% of kids can read on grade level if you believe they did the test, right? It’s way worse if you’re a black boy. It’s really bad if you’re a Latina woman. Then just the results are terrible, right?

And structurally that is a problem. So you’ve seen this incredible impact from the Rosenwald schools. We then saw this sort of challenging environment over the last 30 years, four years from traditional public school system, which led to this sort of charter school movement, this private school choice movement. If you talk to Howard Fuller, he said, “We’re in a basement saying, ‘We want a black one, black led school district in Milwaukee ’cause it’s not working. And the only way we could figure out is let’s get ourselves a voucher program. That’s the only way we could get there.'”

And so this conversation around choice and then to solve crises led us to sort of a charter movement that we have now in many ways. Which if you look at the parallels with the Rosenwald schools and the charter school movement, there’s some interesting parallels, I would argue. But there’s been mistakes being made, I think in the charter movement and the current charter movement versus some of the stuff in the Rosenwald School. What could the current charter movement learn from the sort of past experiences in Rosenwald schools? And then how are HBCUs starting to get involved in this game?

Curtis Valentine: I mean, I guess this is a lot. I think I was in a conversation about sort of what the charter school movement, so-called movement, could do.

Robert Enlow: So it’s freedom of whatever.

Curtis Valentine: I mean, for me, some of it’s around storytelling. Some of it’s around messaging. But to me it’s really about getting to the foundations of what exactly you see as the future. So with our project at the Reinventing America Schools project, and my predecessor of David Osborne’s book, Reinventing America SchoolsR, he really outlines a three-legged stool of what’s most effective in education in America, autonomy, accountability, and choice. Right?

This idea that… And I’ll often start off in a room and people who, some of which are not necessarily charter supporters or choice supporters, and I’ll ask very simple rhetorical questions. Should every child have the right to learn in the environment that’s best suited for them to grow and thrive in their individual gifts? Raise your hand if you believe that? Everyone’s hand goes up. Do you believe that school leaders work optimally when they have the most control of the environment in which they’re responsible for? Whether it be at the classroom level, school leader level.

Everyone’s hand goes up. Do you believe that those schools should be held accountable for certain outcomes for students? And if not, to be penalized? So everyone hand goes up. Will you support charter schools?

Robert Enlow: Or, are they support choice in general, right?

Curtis Valentine: You support choice, but sometimes labels… Sometimes this idea that certain political parties become more closely aligned or at least theoretically aligned with a certain position caused people to sort of forget history, forget fundamentals, and just sort of wrap themselves around a certain political ideology without saying one, let’s get to the fundamentals, which is the three points I’ve mentioned. But also let’s talk about urgency.

The idea that there’s students right now in schools that are not serving them and times are wasting and you can’t get it back. And so let’s move with urgency. Let’s move in a way that puts your child in the room in the school that’s not serving children, and how fast would you move in the same way-

Robert Enlow: Or in a learning environment that suits that-

Curtis Valentine: … in a learning environment.

Robert Enlow: … [inaudible 00:18:50] building, right?

Curtis Valentine: Absolutely.

Robert Enlow: I was getting ready to say this before we started talking. ’96 when I came back… I think the number is correct. There’s been a million kids dropping out every year, at least, I mean since 1996, right? So if you think about those numbers, the urgency of now, if you look at every year’s numbers of dropouts, it’s huge. And so the fierce urgency of now. So can HBCUs, can they be the next sort of Rosenwald schools? And if so, how? Can they be the next iteration of that sort of freedom movement?

Curtis Valentine: I mean, I would say that they’re the only one that could. Recently, I co-wrote a paper with Karega Rausch from the National Association of Charter Authorizers-

Robert Enlow: Sorry to interrupt. Another great Indianapolis guy. So Indianapolis has been the head of education choice for a long time.

Curtis Valentine: He’ll say Indy by way of Denver. I want to make sure we keep that there. But I think for us, again, as I mentioned before, it’s looking back to go forward. Why HBCUs? HBCUs are the byproducts of everything we’ve talked about, determination and yearning for education, but also understanding the role education plays in someone’s life.

Similarly, what HBCUs do, what we say is, have an outsized impact on the world and compared to how much they receive in funding. So we say they punch way above their weight. You look at the amount of students, African American, about 13% of African American students go to HBCU. It’s not a huge number, but they’re producing like 50% of all teachers, like the majority of black doctors, black PhDs.

And so you have this sense of who has done and can do more with less? It’s HBCUs. Similarly, the idea of giving them the power to authorize, which would give them the power to direct different educational models, different revenue streams, different accountability mechanisms in a state that could create pipelines of students in and out of their schools. But also direct teaching and learning and research at a very local level in a way that we haven’t seen inter generation. It’s been done before.

We have HBCU lab schools that were closely aligned with the schools on the campus, Florida A&M, Southern University. All of these schools really have been at the forefront and we’re seeing it now. Delaware State University, Howard University, [inaudible 00:20:59] and State University, all having charter schools either on the campus or closely connected to the campus. And then the number of alumni who are in the choice space who are yearning for connection with their alma mater because the alma mater is where they want to direct students.

But the sooner those institutions can connect with those students to identify different standards and things that they believe that student’s going to need before the internet school, the better they’ll all be.

Robert Enlow: Yeah. So HB’s Charter authorizing would be great to extend. We’ve always said that there should be multiple authorizers, right? It should never just be one, because much like you need a set of options for families, one size doesn’t fit all. And the same thing, one authorizer doesn’t fit all. So I really appreciate that report and everyone should go get it. Where should they get that report?

Curtis Valentine: Well, if you go to progressivepolicy.org, you see it. If you follow me on Twitter or X, whatever you call it now, you’ll find it there on LinkedIn, but it’s out there. I think we have a great forward by Dr. Lomax from UNCF. We’re highlighting what would also take to actually become an authorizer. Different steps you’ll have to take within your state if you have the right to do it. What choose to do if you don’t have the right to do it already, as in your state what to do. But also what the benefits are to being an authorizer and to controlling your own destiny in a way we haven’t seen in a generation.

Robert Enlow: Love that thing. You made a comment about the three questions you’d ask, and I love that. I often do the same kind of thing. A lot of times this issue of educational opportunities and options used to create different bedfellows together. And then over time has created more, I would argue separation than it should. Right? What advice and what thoughts would you have? At EdChoice, we’re sector agnostic. We just don’t care. We want all money to flow to all families to figure out what’s the best thing for them. We don’t care if that’s traditional public, private, charter, at home, online, or any other way we haven’t thought of.

What’s the best way to sort of get out of the partisanship of that kind of philosophy? Which I think we might share a lot of that between ourselves, where we might have a conversation between progressive policy and EdChoice about how far do you go, what the right regulations on it? I would think we probably more in agreement that regulations are probably not as good as they used to be. It probably should be loosening some of them. How do you cross bridges when we have this conversation about educational opportunity?

Curtis Valentine: It’s not an easy fix. I think starting off with telling the truth, telling history, right? This charter school idea, the first champion of charter schools was Bill Clinton. Charter school was started in Minnesota and in California. I mean, you have to… Let’s just sort of come to a common understanding of the facts. But also I think for those of us who have worked in politics or worked in policy, I was always taught by my mentors, no permanent enemies or friends, only permanent issue.

So the idea that we can disagree on this issue or we could have historical disagreements on that. But when it comes to this issue around ensuring that all children have opportunity in the same opportunities for self-actualization, can we come to an agreement on that barring all the other disagreements we may have? Because the students and the young people who we’re fighting for don’t have a voice. And how would our life have been different if a generation ago, someone didn’t fight for me or fight for you?

And so for me, it’s really about telling our story. It’s really about putting children at the center, but also understanding the self-destructiveness of us fighting at a time when the world is eating our lunch, right? And the growth of the world around teaching and learning innovation that I think we’re just going to have to play catch up with. And it’s quite self-destructive for us to continue to have these fights while students are not being taught, while opportunities for innovation are passing us because we’re having these fights. I mean, there’s an African proverb I often quote is, “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

And so these young people don’t have, unfortunately the opportunity to really speak up, but they’re going to come into power sooner than later. And we’ll look back and reflect on why students aren’t learning or why the economy isn’t growing or why certain fields are under… We don’t have enough nurses, we don’t have enough doctors, we don’t have enough, whatever you want to call it. It’ll really be on us. And for us, it’s really important that we understand the future and the impact that all we’re fighting for is going to have on the future.

Robert Enlow: I love that. Focusing on the kids, focusing on the actual outcome and realizing that education innovation can lead to economic revitalization, which I think is a huge issue. And ownership in the conversation of who owns the… I can’t believe I’m going to say this on an EdChoice, but who owns the means of production, right? And the fact of who can control the education of a child and how it gets controlled is a really important concept for us to think about as parents gain more and more opportunities after COVID.

And we have a long way to go. There’s been a ton of learning loss. So I can’t thank you enough for spending time with us. I appreciate all your work with Progressive Policy Institute. And everyone should go look at your new report and thanks for joining.

Curtis Valentine: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.