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In part four, Noliwe Rooks says data reveals no educational benefit from the billions of stimulus funding poured into schools by the Obama administration and school vouchers championed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

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JAISAL NOOR: I wanted to jump forward a little bit. We have our first Black president in Barack Obama. He says he’s going to invest billions of dollars in stimulus money and so-called failing schools. And I wanted to play a clip where he is addressing Congress. He has a student Ty’Sheoma and he’s addressing her and the challenges she’s facing in her school and what he’s going to try to do about it. Here’s that clip.
BARACK OBAMA: I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina, a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She had been told that her school is hopeless. The other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this chamber. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp.
The letter asks us for help and says, “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.” That’s what she said. “We are not quitters.” These words …
JAISAL NOOR: So that’s that powerful and moving clip of Obama addressing Congress with Ty’Sheoma and Michelle Obama embracing her. It’s a powerful and moving moment and it gave a lot of people hope around the country that he was investing billions of dollars in facilities. A lot of that went to infrastructure and facilities and you write about this in your book. He didn’t embrace the policies, the practices that came from the community necessarily. He took a different approach. What were the results of this investment and these programs.
NOLIWE ROOKS: So his last year like the month or so before his term was up before President Trump was elected, his education department released a finding that this money, the billions of dollars that he had invested did absolutely nothing. It was one of the biggest educational failures. But here’s the thing. When you look at what he said, while she’s the face of why we need to invest in infrastructure and while, when you listen to the clip what he focuses on is the infrastructure. There’s a train that’s coming by and the plumbing doesn’t work and sewage is bad. The things that he highlights are all about the building and about the building as a precursor to the students who of course want things and are going to pull themselves up.
He doesn’t mention education, he doesn’t mention educational strategies, he doesn’t mention the things that we know. Of course you need a building that doesn’t have sewage in the hallways, that’s key, but he’s not saying, “And then once we have the building then we can start to bring in educational practices that work.” And so, the stimulus funding was actually, its whole purpose was to put people to work. And so he was able, I think it was 1200 schools across the country that received funding, they were able to fix what was broken, they could hire people to come in; they needed plumbers, they needed painters, they needed gardeners. So they put people to work. People became employed as a way of kind of pulling the country out of the financial morass that it was in.
It was never an educational stimulus package. It really was to stimulate the economy, despite the fact that there’s this young girl who we know, for those of us who are middle class we’ve been the college, you know how you are taught in those buildings matters. That money, all that money it was not put into the service of innovative teaching.
JAISAL NOOR: So today, Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos has promoted, along with privatized charters, voucher schools as a fix to the ailing public-school systems around the country. In your book, you write about the first real experiment with vouchers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a deeply segregated city where minorities, African-Americans, didn’t have access to high-quality public education. And you write about leaders in the Black community that really championed this cause and then you sort of follow their careers and what happened in the years and decades afterwards. Can you talk about that?
NOLIWE ROOKS: A Black woman, assembly woman who moved to Wisconsin in the South from the South, from Alabama as a part of the great migration was a beloved figure in the African-American community, in Wisconsin politics. She served over 20 years being one of the first to be elected. Her name is Annette Polly Williams. She didn’t really come into great acclaim for most of her career until one of the persistent issues in the Milwaukee schools was school segregation and the under-education of Black students and poor students in those schools.
So, she had had some experience with Black independent schools, with the independent school in Milwaukee that had been opened by a woman who had been in Mississippi in 1964, been trained in freedom school techniques. Came back to Milwaukee, opens the school. She’d also been a Benedictine nun, this woman, and is educating these kids at a huge and high level. But the struggle as it’s true for most independent schools is that when you’re educating the children of poor folks they can’t always pay you. And these schools are not eligible for federal funds, for state, local, for educational funds, because they’re private.
And so, her thinking after seeing once again these stunning stories, like you bring me … like whatever is written on the Statue of Liberty, bring me your tired, your poor, your sick, you bring them to this school and to this educational structure with the high expectations but support and wrap-around services like all this stuff, and these kids are flourishing. And so she decides that maybe there is something to this. And in order to have more of these schools be able to open–because it’s working when nothing else is–that we should maybe figure out how to have publicly run schools that you can bring your state tax dollars–so whatever the state is giving your city to educate each student, you can get a voucher for that amount, or something like that amount, and you can just take it to a private school and then your child can have this paid for.
Historically, this idea had been considered like a Republican idea, a conservative idea, an idea that was a stealth kind of attack on a way to get more education dollars but had nothing to do with actually caring about the education of poor kids.
So when Polly Williams, who is, again, this beloved figure in Milwaukee, starts saying, “But you know, think about what could happen if we could take and reproduce these schools that are working and if poor people could take this money that’s now going to these schools that are in shambles, this could work.” She made huge headway, and she was in bed with the conservative Republicans, who this was the only thing that they could find common ground on. She for her own reasons, and her reasons had everything to do with educating the least of these; them, because they wanted to pull money out of what Betsy DeVos calls “government schools” and put them elsewhere. But it seemed like oh, it’s a win-win kind of situation.
As time goes on, she and another man named Howard Fuller, who had come out of the Black Power movement, had founded a university in North Carolina, Malcolm X University–a utopian community in fact–who had sort of like Black progressive, Black liberation credibility. So she is a fairly mainstream politician, she’s got one part of Black communities who are like okay, you’re a politician. He comes out of Black power period, so he gets a whole other segment of the Milwaukee Black community interested in this idea of vouchers. And the two of them for a while, while she is the mother of the voucher movement, that’s the term that was applied to her, he is sort of the father. And so the two of them are making great strides.
About 10 years in, she looks up and she’s kind of like, “Hold up here, now wait, what is happening?” Somehow 75 percent of the vouchers are going to white families who are upper-middle class. She had thought that the vouchers that there was income cut-off level to make sure that the least of these were getting this money, to make sure if we’re pulling money out of the public-school system it is actually going to the neediest. She had not really noticed, had not paid attention to the fact that who in fact was getting this money were people that were taking it to religious schools.
So the vast majority of money is being pulled out of Milwaukee public schools, given to two-parent, white middle-class earning $75,000 a year–at the time, in the ’80s that was still a good chunk of money–however, at the time it was kind of like, you’re just giving it to rich people. Poor folks were being locked out of it.
And so she started raising a ruckus, raising these issues and, you know, and saying, “This was not our deal, this is not what was supposed to happen, this is what all Black people were worried about. I’ve been out here running around the country on your behalf trying to lead a whole movement.” She became a cause celeb and so people are flying her out of foundations. She was making more money giving speeches than she was from the salary that she earned as a legislator. But all of a sudden she started asking these questions that these folks didn’t want to hear.
And while she was a part of a group of folks who were saying, you know, we’ve hit upon something that is the unfinished work of the civil rights movement: that education never got fixed then. And so one of her talking points was this is the way that we actually get all the stuff that was promised to us, this is a civil rights movement. She’s running around telling all these people.
Then she looks up and she’s like but wait a minute, rich white people are benefiting. The schools are still bad and now we’ve got less money. Now they’re having to like cut back on teachers and close schools.
JAISAL NOOR: You’re saying that it’s going to families that were already going to send their kids to private schools.
NOLIWE ROOKS: Didn’t go to poor people. So it made it possible for middle class and upper middle class white people to no longer have to pay tuition to send their kids mostly to religious schools, like most of them were going to religious school and it was nothing like what she thought. So as she started to raise more of a ruckus she was kind of pushed to the side, and people wouldn’t fund her, and people wouldn’t return her calls, and no one would answer her. But Howard Fuller stepped right into the breach and became the face of, “No, this is what we need,” he still took the foundation money and still in Milwaukee. But Milwaukee public schools after all of that are still hugely segregated and completely underperforming.
And there are in fact no voucher programs despite the fact that Betsy DeVos, as you started with, and others, every so often it makes sense to them. And so they’ll say, just take the money and put it over here. Again, we have data, we have history. We know what happens when you do that. It just doesn’t work, it benefits the high achieving and it further impoverishes those who are left behind.

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Noliwe Rooks is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work explores how race and gender both impact and are impacted by civic culture, social history and political life in the United States. She is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Cutting School: Privitization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education (New Press, 2017). Rooks is currently the Director of American Studies at Cornell University where she is also an Associate Professor in Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.