DeVos: Black Colleges Are 'Pioneers' of 'School Choice'

Education secretary's remarks astound many advocates for colleges that were created because black students were denied choices.

February 28, 2017
Betsy DeVos

Monday evening, the Education Department issued a statement from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that has infuriated many advocates for historically black colleges. The statement comes when many leaders of black colleges are in Washington for meetings at the White House and with Republican congressional leaders, who have been wooing black colleges and pledging to help them.

Most of the statement is innocuous. DeVos praises black colleges. In perhaps a sign not to expect too much money from the Trump administration, she says, "Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential." And she notes that black colleges were created when "there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education."

But DeVos goes on to link black colleges to the issue of school choice -- a cause for which she is an advocate. "HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice," she said. "They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."

While that summarizes the school choice argument, social media lit up late Monday with supporters of black colleges noting that the institutions were founded because black students had, in many respects, no choice. They could not enroll at predominantly white institutions in the South, even at public institutions in their own states. Further, as states created public historically black colleges, they did so to meet "separate but equal" requirements and never took the "equal" part of that statement seriously. Public black colleges were created with a fraction of the budgets, programs and facilities of their predominantly white counterparts. While many students did thrive at these institutions, educators there constantly decried the lack of resources (and many maintain that continues to this day).

The DeVos comments also arrived early into a controversial tenure. Last week she angered many faculty members by saying that they indoctrinate students.

Here are some of the comments that appeared on social media after the DeVos statement was released.

Slate ran a column last night with the headline "Insane Betsy DeVos Press Release Celebrates Jim Crow Education System as Pioneer of 'School Choice.'"

Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written numerous books about the history of black colleges and who is director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, took to Facebook to describe her anger at the DeVos statement and the idea that people are taking seriously the Trump administration's outreach to black colleges.

Gasman wrote, "Take a look at this ahistorical and inaccurate depiction of HBCUs by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. See how HBCUs and their creation are described -- 'they saw that the system wasn't working.' I'm talking to the media about this right now. And then folks are wondering why I don't advocate for kowtowing with Trump and his white supremacist friends. They are trying to pretend that a vast system of oppression, slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination never existed. And then using HBCUs to promote their school choice agenda … give me a break. Stop falling for the okie doke people! You can't negotiate with white supremacists for black rights and opportunities. #WhitewashingHBCUhistory"

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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