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Black Films and Artists Thrive at 2019 Tribeca Film Festival

CHARLESTON CHRONICLE — The 18th annual Tribeca Film Festival featured films, docs, shorts, TV, tech seminars and immersive experiences. It was a 21st century gathering place for filmmakers, artists and fans. Black films, directors, actors and artists shared the glory and attention with other contemporaries who were proud to have TFF as an international venue. As the festival inches towards the two-decade mark, it’s only getting better and maturing like a fine wine.  

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By NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown

The 18th annual Tribeca Film Festival featured films, docs, shorts, TV, tech seminars and immersive experiences. It was a 21st century gathering place for filmmakers, artists and fans.  

Black films, directors, actors and artists shared the glory and attention with other contemporaries who were proud to have TFF as an international venue. As the festival inches towards the two-decade mark, it’s only getting better and maturing like a fine wine.  

Black Films, Filmmakers, Actors and Artists

17 Blocks (****) Life expectancy in the U.S. averages out to around 79 years of age. That statistic skews much lower in this poignant and profound documentary about a Washington, D.C. family that’s on a different path. In 1999, nine-year old Emmanuel is given a movie camera. He uses it to chronicle the exploits of his mom, older brother, older sister and extended family. His lens captures the love in the air, the danger outside and the hope he brings to his family for a son who could be the first in their brood to go to college. Drugs, gangs and violence lurk. Emmanuel’s destiny takes a turn that will leave viewers spellbound. Over a 20-year period, this family’s dynamics, conflicts, breath throughs and tribulations are recorded like an urban allegory. The span of time is reminiscent of the Oscar-nominated drama Boyhood. The soul of a young man gets an enduring legacy thanks to the power of film.

The Apollo (***1/2) The Apollo Theater was always so much more than a performing arts venue. Since 1934, it’s been a community center, talent scout hub, training ground for countless artists and a mecca that is destined to be both a shrine and a progressive cultural home—for years to come. Director Roger Ross Williams helms this ambitious project, Lisa Cortes is a producer and the perceptive writing by Cassidy Hartmann and Roger Ross Williams pays respect to the hall’s past and its extended family. The footage is most exciting when it depicts performances by legendary artists (Ella, Duke, Dinah, Billie), Motown (Smokey, Supremes, Temptations) and comedians (Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor). Veterans (e.g. Patti Labelle) share their anecdotes. The late Ralph Cooper recollects starting Amateur Night. Rarely has a history lesson been so damn entertaining.  

Burning Cane (***) And what were you doing at age 17? Phillip Youmans was writing his first script, which he turned into this Southern Louisiana melodrama about a mother (Karen Kaia Livers) who deals with an alcoholic adult son (Dominique McClellan), his boy (Braelyn Kelly) and a recently widowed and stressed-out preacher (Wendell Pierce). The sun beats down on this luckless family, who grinds itself into a deeper and deeper hole. Youmans’ premise and maturity go well beyond his years. He puts his characters in an angst that hovers over the entire production. For tone and drama, he gets an A+. For storytelling, a B-. For tech elements a C. The gritty feel is reminiscent of a John Cassavetes movie. Youmans’ cinematography needs developing; camera placement is questionable as is the lighting. If the footage has a Beast of the Southern Wild synergy, it’s because this movie’s executive producer, Ben Zeitlin, was that film’s director. 

Devil’s Pie—D’Angelo (***1/2) Lots of musicians attract a following, but D’Angelo’s fans can be classified as an avid cult with extremely good taste in soul music. Part of the Grammy winner’s mystique centers around his 14-year-absence from recording (Voodoo in 2000; Black Messiah in 2014), which stunned his admirers. That mystery, his childhood, resurgence, live shows, recording sessions and musings are on view in this wonderfully crafted homage. Home movies and photos depict his upbringing, influential grandmother and days as his church’s organist. Personal anecdotes reveal his problems with alcohol and drugs. Attesting to his musical savvy and eccentricities are Questlove, Dave Chappelle and Erykah Badu. Though many put D’Angelo in his own niche (R&B, soul, funk, sexy songs with a hint of jazz), Prince’s influence is quite obvious when the singer wails. Thank documentarian Carina Bijlsma for the candid glimpse at a musical innovator who should be called a genius. Get ready to tap your toes and sing along to “Brown Sugar.” 

Gully (*1/2)  Music video director Nabil Elderkin steps into the deep end of feature filmmaking and flounders. His technique is solid, especially the ways he moves the camera (cinematographer Adriano Goldman) around on evocative shots of palm tree-lined streets in Los Angeles. However, he’s wasted his talent on a misguided script (Marcus Guillory) that focuses on three unlikable and aimless adolescents (Jacob Latimore, Charlie Plummer, Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The trio go from playing violent video games to assaulting people on the streets—without any obvious motivation. Yes, they each have troubled pasts, but nothing that warrants physical attacks. Never believable. Never compelling. Pointless. Kids have excuses for making bad decisions. Adults, like the ones who made this repulsive drivel, do not. 

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica (***) Showing admiration for reggae musicians from the ‘70s and ‘80s is this very inspiring doc’s goal. Shot largely in the hills above Kingston, British director Peter Webber gives a comeback platform to senior reggae stars like Ken Boothe, Winston McAnuff, Kiddus I, and Cedric Myton. Long past their heyday but still able to sell a song. Their stories of past triumphs are riveting and it’s a joy to watch them record again. They’re backed up by young musicians eager to play with their heroes. Judy Mowatt, legendary former Bob Marley backup singer, is a revelation. Reggae music, like Jamaica, is all about peace and love. That’s the takeaway. That’s what the audience will remember about this rousing, heartfelt documentary. 

A Kid from Coney Island (***) We’re well-acquainted with basketball’s most successful players who soared into fame and fortune (Kobe, Magic, Michael, Larry, LeBron). We’re less familiar with hoop dream athletes who struggled. Stephon Marbury grew up in the Coney Island projects, where the only choices for rising above the fray was becoming a rapper, drug dealer or basketball player. Obsessed with the sport from a young age, he was influenced by his dad and brothers and nurtured by his older sis and mom. Steph was destined for greatness. He became a city champion, college star, draft choice and NBA legend. Only fate tossed him curve balls. Under the prying eye of doc directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, viewers watch a very talented man withstand the death of a parent, depression, a career that stalls and a surprisingly spiritual path to redemption. In this eye-opening and sobering documentary, we see how an eight-pound orange ball can take an inner-city kid to the other side of the world. More ups and downs and as exciting as the Cyclone roller coaster ride on Coney Island.

Lil’ Buck: Real Swan (***) The kids in Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley’s low-income outer Memphis neighborhood flocked to the local roller rink at night and waited for the skating to stop and the dancing to begin. Jookin’ is the local dance form, akin to Crunking, Gangsta Walking and Michael Jackson’s stop-start-twirls. Lil’ Buck won a scholarship to a Memphis dance school, and added ballet to his mix. His blend of urban dance and classic technique is amazing to watch. Equally entrancing is this beguiling look at a young kid who blossoms as a person and a dancer. A career in L.A., performances with Yo-Yo Ma and touring the world are like a dream come true. Director Louis Wallecan doesn’t miss one step. Interviews with family, friends and admirers highlight a hybrid street dance, an art form created by an innovator who transcends life and description. 

Only (**1/2) What if? What if after the apocalypse a virus became a plague that only killed women? That’s the premise of writer/director Takashi Doscher’s ultra-modern and very scary sci-fi nightmare. The focus is on a couple, Eva (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) and Will (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton) who survive indoors using hazmat suits to stave off danger. Every scene is as creepy as the premise. Nice performances from the two leads. Ugly cinematography (Sean Stiegemeier) done in shades of gray, greens and browns make footage dreary. Can’t say Dosher is an accomplished filmmaker—yet, but this movie hits a nerve. Also, coming from a male director there is a misogynist undertone that just doesn’t feel right. 

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (***) Saying she liked keepsakes is putting it mildly. Librarian, TV producer and political activist Marion Stokes had an obsession: capturing the news as it was depicted on TV. From 1979 (Iranian hostage crisis) to 2012 (Sandy Hook tragedy), she recorded newsfeeds from the networks on 70,000 VHS tapes. For an enlightening and somewhat somber history lesson, view this documentary to see how far society has evolved and what it has left in its wake. Documentarian Matt Wolf handpicks clips, adds in the essence of Stokes’ personality and interviews witnesses to her hobby. He creates a thought-provoking look at the upheavals, controversies and conflicts that have shaped this country. Racial and social issues come to the forefront.  

Roads (**1/2) Actor turned director and writer Sebastian Schipper (Run Lola Runand Victoria) examines immigration with this vibrant road movie. British teen Gyllen (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) steals his stepfather’s RV while in Morocco and heads towards France to visit his father. Along the way, he picks up a fellow traveler, William (Stéphane Bak), who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s interesting to watch the way they are treated differently as they travel. Gyllen makes his anger known and is oblivious to danger. The more reserved William knows danger way too well and can smell it before it happens. Their divergent points of view and cultural differences speak more about race relations than a college course. A thoughtful script (Schipper and Oliver Ziegenbalg), nice performances from the teens. Final scenes that depict refugees’ confined lives in France are solemn. 

Skin (***1/2)  Tsotsi was the 2006 Oscar-Winner for Best Foreign Film and it chronicled the evolution of a hoodlum who seemed beyond redemption. This very daring and similar drama by writer/director Guy Nattiv is equally emancipating in its own way. Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), a twentysomething skinhead is bullied by his adoptive parents (Vera Farmiga, Bill Camp) who are violent white supremacists. Life changes for him when he meets a single mom (Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$). It takes an even greater turn when he comes under the watchful eye of social activist Darlye Jenkins (Mike Colter, Luke Cage), whose foundation, One People’s Project, specializes in converting neo-Nazis. This is possibly the biggest character arc you will ever see in a film. Tense, suspenseful, dramatic, romantic and cathartic. Excellent performances from all in this stick-to-your-ribs true story. Watching human garbage turn into human beings can be extremely gratifying. Excellent. 

What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali (***) Oscar-winner When We Were Kings focussed on Muhammad Ali’s “The Rumble in the Jungle” match. Does this doc have that much majesty? Almost. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) takes a more all-encompassing approach. Using never-before-seen archival footage, and with a great sense of pacing (editor Jake Pushinsky), Fuqua highlights Ali’s pinnacles and low points. He explores the champion’s social activism and personal life. Details about his entry into boxing, teenage years, relationships with Malcolm X and Sam Cooke are on the screen. The most surprising revelation is that Ali’s decision to flaunt a larger-than-life egocentric persona was influenced by the flamboyant wrestler Gorgeous George. Most of the memorable quotes come from Ali’s lips. It’s like he’s reaching back from the grave to remind us how brash and brave he was. Illuminating. 

Films of Note

After Parkland (****) Rarely if ever does a film put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye for its entire length. Be prepared to be awed, humbled and inspired by the Parkland, Florida victims, survivors and activists. You’ve seen their faces on the news, now you get a close-up look at the people behind the headlines and the indomitable spirit they’ve collectively created that is bound to bring about change. The kids and adults are so bright and articulate that their words carry the film:  “Someone was hunting my classmates.” “Bullets shred anything in sight. Tissue, walls, desks, backpacks.” “We’re going to change the world.” Expert technique and sensitive filming by directors Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman make this an Oscar-caliber documentary.

Crown Vic  (***) The cop/crime/thriller genre gets a healthy dose of personal drama in this L.A.-based film noir that’s rough around the edges. First-time feature film director/writer Joel Souza pairs up two L.A.P.D. cops. The older crusty patrol officer Ray Mandel (Thomas Jane, Boogie Nights) shepherds the naive rookie Nick (Luke Kleintank, TV’s Bones) on an overnight shift. Meanwhile, two bank robbers/killers are on the loose. Mandel’s chilling words: “Take your badge off and put it in the glove box.” Their policing takes a turn towards the gutter. The beginning of the film is marred by too much dialogue in a claustrophobic patrol car, which kills momentum. Souza adds in a funny scene with a drunk lady, friction with undercover cops (Josh Hopkins, David Krumholtz) and a search for a missing kid to spice up the night. Jane is the glue and mortar. The dialogue is strong too. Mandel: ‘People Sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men do violence on their behalf.”  Someone call 911!

The Kill Team (**1/2) Dan Krauss made a doc about a true-life incident involving an infantryman in Afghanistan in 2010 who dealt with a commanding officer who was violent to innocent locals and his platoon too. He’s turned that project into a feature film, with varied results. Actor Nat Wolff plays the soldier and Alexander Skarsgård stars as the disturbed leader who doles out harsh reality to his men: “We kill people. That’s what we do. Do you have a problem with that?” The enlistee is in a quandary that could take his own life. How would you react? That intriguing premise saves the film. Edited down to 87 minutes (editor Franklin Peterson), the footage is never attractive (Stéphane Fontaine), the performances are only decent and the emotion never runs deep. Still, this film tells a powerful story.

Linda Ronstandt: The Sound of My Voice (***1/2) Singing in Linda Ronstandt’s family was as common as Sunday dinner, and she had the best voice, too. As a teen in a sibling folk group she developed a sense of harmony and a performance presence that kick-started her career in L.A. In the music industry, she stood out as a woman in a man’s world. She led her own band, made her own career decisions and went through a world-famous metamorphosis: Folk, pop, rock, soul, light opera, big band and Mexican folk musicshe did it allDirectors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman bless the footage with childhood photos, concert video and insights by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt. The very well-read Ronstandt herself pipes in with anecdotes and philosophies that underline her intelligence shed light on her battle with Parkinson’s disease. A trip down memory lane, done to the tune of Grammy-winning songs by rock n’ roll’s first female superstar. A visual and audio retrospective that sticks with you. 

The Quiet One (***1/2) The meek shall inherit the earth—and other stuff. Bill Wyman, the quietest musician in the Rolling Stones, is a historian. Director Oliver Murray gives the group’s bass player all the room he needs to shed light on his role as the band’s sober member. Fortunately for Stones fans, he was an avid collector of footage, photos and other memorabilia. You could almost classify him as a hoarder, except his stunning collection is so damn neat and organized. He’s stockpiled his knick-knacks in the most orderly filing system with documentation so elaborate it would shame a librarian. Hearing him talk about his idols Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Muddy Water and Howlin’ Wolf is heart-warming. Behind-the scenes details about the Rolling Stones’ tragedies, fiascos and creative process are equally fascinating. Oddly, the film does not cover Wyman’s controversial relationship with a teenager. Special shout out to Tim Sidell’s gorgeous cinematography and Anne Perri’s astute editing. Wyman is a quiet treasure and so is this doc.  

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (***) “Well I came upon a child of God, He was walking along the road, And I asked him, Tell me where are you going, And this he told me…” Director Barak Goodman and his co-writer Don Kleszy take audiences behind the scenes of Woodstock to the muddy fields, horrible weather and peace/love vibe that became the legend of the occasion. It’s an event that has never been repeated successfully. Still, from the viewpoint of the common people who went, we get a new perception that those “highly” spiritual and heady days were more than a one-time phenomenon, they spawned a vibe that far outlived the concerts. On the stages, in this temporary city of 400,000 hippies, musicians like Richie Havens, CSN, Jimi Hendrix and the bunch look like heroes, though not as quite as gusty or adaptable as the venue’s stunned promoters: John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. Refreshing and a complete joy to watch in this day and age of hate mongering. 

Tribeca is building a solid reputation as a film festival that values diversity, inclusion and new voices. It’s a champ at spotlighting emerging talent from around the U.S. and the world. 

It’s no wonder black films, artists, their fans and others are supporting the fest with their work, participation and attendance. 

For more information about Tribeca Film Festival go to: https://www.tribecafilm.com

Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.

This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle

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Black History

Women’s Suffrage Forged by Founding Sisters: Happy Birthday to Ida B.

CHARLESTON CHRONICLE — So proclaimed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who fearlessly shined a light with words on the abominable dark days after slavery and into the 20th century. Journalist, publisher, author, activist, and suffragist leader, Ida B.’s spirit soars. July 16 marks the 157th anniversary of her birth. Blood, sweat, and ink sealed her legacy and the future of a nation still struggling to be whole.

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By Gwen McKinney

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

So proclaimed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who fearlessly shined a light with words on the abominable dark days after slavery and into the 20th century.

Journalist, publisher, author, activist, and suffragist leader, Ida B.’s spirit soars. July 16 marks the 157th anniversary of her birth. Blood, sweat, and ink sealed her legacy and the future of a nation still struggling to be whole.

Ida B. revered the Black press as an organizing tool. Though her newspaper The Memphis Free Speech was destroyed by racist mobs, she was never silenced. During her life, she would publish three newspapers and authored “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” and “The Red Record,” investigative reports that remain definitive sources on racist violence more than 100 years later.

Small in stature but huge in courage, Wells, an emancipated slave, joined a cadre of Black contemporaries – scholars, activists, and thought leaders – who pledged to change the trajectory of bondage and demand that Black women have a voice.

They defy the clichés and caricatures planted in popular culture with their searing voices. Their cadence would not be paraphrased or translated into the often quoted “Ain’t I A Woman” reprise. But forever burdened by their womanhood and Blackness, their path – then and now – is littered with obstacles.

Educator and writer Mary Church Terrell observed, “Nobody wants to know a colored woman’s opinion about her own status [or] that of her group. When she dares express it, no matter how mild or tactful…, it is called ‘propaganda,’ or is labeled ‘controversial.’”

Poet, teacher, and Baltimore abolitionist Frances Ellen Harper was among the suffragists who pleaded the case for linked fate unity. “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” she said. “Society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”

These Founding Sisters forged civil rights organizations with Black men, sororities, and service clubs with their women peers, and joined “woke” White women against lynching and disenfranchisement and for education and economic development.

It was Ida B. and a coterie of Black women publishers, writers, and teachers of the era who led the movement for universal suffrage even when Black women were shunned and excluded.

Nonetheless, women’s suffrage, deeply rooted in abolitionism, is depicted in a single dimension as the jumpstart for the white feminist/voting rights movement.

Regarded as social reformers, White suffragist – many of them supporters of abolition – confronted a fork in the road, conflicted between the “Negro question” and universal suffrage.

With passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 granting Black men voting rights, universal suffrage would be sacrificed on the altar of patriarchy and white supremacy. Defended or oversimplified, the words of Susan B. Anthony, crowned the mother of women’s suffrage, illustrate the entrenched stranglehold of whiteness.

Though she counted abolitionist Frederick Douglas as an admired cohort, Anthony’s contradictions can only be measured today in the context of racism and exclusion.

“I would sooner cut off this right arm of mine before I would ever work for or demand the ballot for the black man and not the woman,” she said. One might conclude that she was seduced by the divide-and-conquer tactics of the male proponents of the 15th Amendment. But Anthony’s view was widely embraced by the White women’s suffrage movement.

Her friend and suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, arguing against the 15th Amendment, protested: “It’s better to be the slave of an educated white man than of a degraded black one.”

One year away from the centennial of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, how much ground have we gained as women and a nation? How much of the conversation about gender equality denies the overlapping impact of white nationalism, patriarchy, and privilege? Where and when do the voices of Black and Brown women enter?

But first and foremost, when do Black women get the recognition that they have earned in their unbroken march to freedom?

Our compass should be guided by that path forged by Ida B. Wells and other courageous Black women whose intersectional quest to make America stand upright changed the world.

This opening salvo embraces Suffrage. Race. Power. Spurred by my collaboration with a small collective of women that is Black-led, cross-generational, and supported by “woke” White women, we’ve named ourselves “Founding Sisters.” This space will offer regular installments that honor our Founding Sisters of the last centuries and spotlight the unfinished business of Suffrage. Race. Power.

To kick it off: Happy birthday Ida B.!

Gwen McKinney is President and Founder of McKinney & Associates Public Relations, for which she is responsible for translating the vision of “public relations with a conscience” into a sustained, bold and tested suite of communications services and activities. She is also the founder and lead collaborator for Suffrage.Race.Power.

This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle

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Charleston Chronicle

Home Telecom Partners with Berkeley County School District to Roll Out Free Internet to K-12 Student Households in Cross Schools

CHARLESTON CHRONICLE — Award-winning Lowcountry technology provider Home Telecom announces the rollout of free internet to households with school-age children in the Cross community this upcoming school year. As part of their partnership with the Berkeley County School District (BCSD) who has support from Google via a grant, Home Telecom will be making network improvements that make the free service available to households with children from kindergarten through 12th grade that are attending Cross Elementary or Cross High Schools.

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By The Charleston Chronicle

Award-winning Lowcountry technology provider Home Telecom announces the rollout of free internet to households with school-age children in the Cross community this upcoming school year. As part of their partnership with the Berkeley County School District (BCSD) who has support from Google via a grant, Home Telecom will be making network improvements that make the free service available to households with children from kindergarten through 12th grade that are attending Cross Elementary or Cross High Schools.

Previously, BCSD implemented the  One Berkeley Connects initiative by supplying students in the district with Chromebooks to be used in school and at home to assist in the learning process. In order to benefit from this initiative, it is important to have reliable broadband internet access in students’ homes. Access to the internet for the betterment of education is a priority for Home Telecom.

Home Telecom began a project in late 2017 to invest a significant amount of capital into making higher speed internet available to the Cross community. Currently, only 60% of homes with school-age children in that area have internet service. Additional capital is being invested by Home Telecom to improve the internet speed available, and to provide access to at least 95% of the remaining homes without internet access.

BCSD is partnering with Home Telecom to provide greatly discounted high-speed internet service with in-home WiFi to 365 addresses identified by BCSD as being occupied by Cross school students. Funding provided by a Google grant will allow internet service to be provided to these homes at no charge for the 2019-2020 school year.

BCSD has begun notifying eligible families and requesting they contact Home Telecom to begin the process to set up the free internet service in their homes. From now through August, Home Telecom technicians will be performing necessary construction and installations to ensure these homes are internet-ready by August 2019.

Residents in the designated area with school-age children who currently have Home Telecom internet services that are slower than 10Mbps may upgrade to 10Mbps in order to take full advantage of this program. Residents who are capable and desire to have speeds higher than 10Mbps will be able to upgrade at a discounted price.

This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle

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Charleston Chronicle

Regulatory rollback on student loans takes away borrower protections

CHARLESTON CHRONICLE — Every Fourth of July celebrates this nation’s founding. But this year, only a few days before the annual freedom celebration, an ill-advised governmental action will financially doom rather than free millions of student loan borrowers – as of July 1. Moreover, this action arrives as the cost of higher education continues to soar and household incomes remain largely stagnant.

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By Charlene Crowell

Every Fourth of July celebrates this nation’s founding. But this year, only a few days before the annual freedom celebration, an ill-advised governmental action will financially doom rather than free millions of student loan borrowers – as of July 1. Moreover, this action arrives as the cost of higher education continues to soar and household incomes remain largely stagnant.

Charlene Crowell

Charlene Crowell

On June 28, the Department of Education announced the end of an important student loan regulation that since 2015 has held colleges with career training programs accountable for failure to provide an education that resulted in marketable skills and earnings high enough to repay student loans.

Known as the Gainful Employment rule, it required career and technical training programs that receive federal financial aid to prove that students would receive the education promised or forfeit future federal funding dollars. Additionally, covered institutions and programs were required to disclose to prospective students the career earnings and student debts of recent graduates.

In other words, the rule was intended to rein in abusive schools before they could harm students or waste taxpayer-funded aid.

Finalized in 2014, the rule was too late to help the tens of thousands of student borrowers affected by the failures of huge for-profit institutions, Corinthian Colleges, and ITT Technical Institute.  Borrowers at these now-shuttered colleges were left without degrees, or credits that could be transferred, but carried with them unaffordable debts that have devastated the stability of their families. These closures also resulted in massive losses to taxpayers who fund federal financial aid.

Even so, the Gainful Employment rule has been effective in two other ways. First, it pushed many other for-profit institutions to cut their worst performing programs. Secondly, it controlled tuition costs. Either violation brought regulatory sanctions.

Now, instead of these protections, consumers are left on their own — directed to an expanded web resources known as a ‘College Scorecard’ where information on student debt and earnings now includes 2,100 certificate-granting programs.

“These important reforms are a more complete and effective way to hold all types of higher education institutions accountable and make sure that students have a full suite of data when making a decision about their education,” said Secretary DeVos in a statement.

Saying that information is the equivalent of regulation is simply not true. Effective regulations impose penalties, fines, and conditions on future actions – all to deter bad actors from repeating behaviors. By contrast, information only discloses with no guarantee that what is shared will be truthful, complete, or current.

Elected officials and consumer advocates were quick to point out the shortcomings of student loan deregulation.

“[B]y eliminating this rule without enforcing any alternative standard the Education Department is giving low-quality, for-profit colleges a free pass to charge high tuition for worthless credentials that leave students with insurmountable debt,” noted  U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

“Students need protection against unaffordable loans,” said James Kvaal, President of The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). “This rule rolls back the clock on those very protections. At a time when millions of borrowers are struggling with debt they cannot afford, the Department’s repeal of the gainful employment rule is reckless and irresponsible.”

The ills that TICAS’ Kvaal points out are well-documented.

A 2018 research report entitled, The State of For-Profit Colleges, by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) analyzed student debt on a state-by-state basis. It concluded that investing in a for-profit education is almost always a risky proposition. Undergraduate borrowing by state showed that the percentage of students that borrow from the federal government generally ranged between 40 to 60 percent for public colleges, compared to 50 to 80 percent at for-profit institutions.

CRL also found that women and Blacks suffer disparate impacts, particularly at for-profit institutions, where they are disproportionately enrolled in most states.  For example, enrollment at Mississippi’s for-profit colleges was 78 percent female and nearly 66 percent Black. Other states with high Black enrollment at for-profits included Georgia (57 percent), Louisiana (55 percent), Maryland (58 percent) and North Carolina (54 percent).

“Betsy DeVos’ decision to eliminate this important education protection is a disservice to the public and only serves to put corporate interests ahead of struggling students and taxpayers,” said Debbie Goldstein a CRL Executive Vice President, following the recent rescission of the Gainful Employment rule. “Completely removing oversight of these programs and leaving parents and students to navigate the college loan system is irresponsible and wastes federal money on programs that aren’t performing.”

Similarly to CRL, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) has found that for-profit college students borrow more, and more often. More than 80% of for-profit college graduates incurred nearly $40,000 in debt at the time of graduation. Further, Black and Latino student loan borrowers were found to default on their loans at twice the rate of similarly situated whites.

“Repealing the Gainful Employment rule will cost taxpayers over $6 billion over the next decade, and ending this rule will worsen the student loan debt crisis, especially for the people of color and low-income students who disproportionately attend career education programs and who are often targets of predatory recruitment practices,” said Abby Shafroth, an NCLC attorney who works with its Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. “The Department’s unfounded claims that students will benefit from “more access” as a result of the repeal are bogus: Students don’t need access to more failing schools, they need a student loan system that doesn’t set them up to fail.”

With 44 million student borrowers owing $1.5 trillion nationwide at the end of 2019’s first quarter, removing federal guard rails against future borrower risk is as costly as it is unsustainable. As the federal government turns its back on these borrowers, perhaps another level of government can and will fill the void.

“Now more than ever,” concluded Goldstein, “states have important roles to play in regulation, oversight, and enforcement.

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s Communications Deputy Director. She can be reached at Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.  

This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle

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