There are no permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests.
This is the case in the arena of education reform and school choice, where stakeholders from all different ilk are aligned.
For the United Negro College Fund, this premise is being tested and applied in challenging ways, but in ways, leadership has seen quite often. It is that approach that has assisted the long-standing institution’s ability to see the impact that includes over $4.5 billion raised and over 445,000 students receiving post-secondary degrees with UNCF support since its founding.
“With that name, we’ve been doing some important work for 74 years,” said UNCF President/CEO Michael Lomax. “We’re not tourists, our voices are respected and lifted up. This is consequential. This work will make the difference as to whether our communities thrive or underachieve.”
Leading UNCF since 2004, Lomax, a self-proclaimed liberal, New York Times loving Democrat, now finds himself navigating the challenge of ensuring an administration steeped in controversy and chaos hear and incorporate the input UNCF and its partners hold essential to student success.
Admittedly, there is a lot of work to do. Let’s begin with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She is a revolutionary thinker in terms of school choice but erroneously uses the choice platform to eviscerate other critical public education initiatives and supports. Adding to that complication is Congress who Lomax said is equally keen toward cuts, though not expected to be as draconian as those proposed by the administration.
Still, according to Lomax, the fight to be heard is a fight that involves strategic coalition and partnerships toward a common goal. It’s much better to be at the table than to not be heard at all. “This is a war on two fronts,” he said. “(DeVos) has a lot of power. She’s done some things right. She’s not fearful; she’s not afraid to step into this.”
Among those efforts that Lomax holds as positive includes the Education Department's revised approach to borrowers’ defense to repayment. Earlier this summer, DeVos announced a reset of regulations implemented in 2016 by the Obama administration to assist students defrauded by schools to have their loans discharged. This regulatory reset, the Department holds, better assists students and expedites that process.
But for those efforts Lomax identified as promising, like many long-time education advocates, he is fearful that the proposed education cuts to efforts such as work study ultimately bear the potential to disproportionately and potentially cause irreversible damage to low income and minority students. Such changes represent a red line for which he and UNCF are prepared to fight.
“Right now, it’s grim, what is happening is once you submit a budget like the budget they’ve submitted, you’ve made legitimate the notion that you can cut work study, that you can eliminate these other loan programs as you consolidate everything,” Lomax added. “There will be fewer options. We’re not just fighting this for Black folks, we’re fighting this for low-income first generation Americans who rely on federal support. And we’re making our voices disproportionately loud, we’re taking shots for everybody on this one. These are national issues.”
Nationally, as Lomax and other critical leaders and advocates navigate the choppy waters of the Washington swamp, they utilize their networks to mobilize on the ground. The Indianapolis area office, for example, has and continues to play a critical role in enhancing greater awareness of education matters as part of their overall outreach to the city’s low income and minority community.
To shape that dialogue, Lomax adds the goal remains to empower underserved communities with information that ultimately must translate into tangible participation and educational choices rooted in sound information. “There are these misrepresentations about how Black people and parents feel about education,” he said. “We put our lives on the line to get a good education so it can’t be we don’t care. We care about education, but the story is we don’t. I know how much passion, frustration, resilience determination all of that is in our community around the issue of education. But I also know that our parents and our support base needs to know more. They need to be better informed. They need to be activated. We see that when that happens they make a difference.”