Betsy DeVos applauds historically segregated schools as ‘pioneers of school choice’

Students at historically black colleges originally had no choice.

President Donald Trump, right, meets with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Donald Trump, right, meets with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Following President Trump’s meeting with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a statement applauding the schools as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

“They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality,” she continued. “Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

But lauding HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” overlooks the fact that they were historically the only options available to black students denied entry to traditionally white institutions.

And because states have historically prioritized white schools — many of which necessitated the formation of HBCUs by refusing to integrate — HBCUs have been persistently underfunded.

“Historically black colleges and universities — those institutions of higher education founded prior to 1964 with the principal mission of educating black Americans excluded from segregated public and private universities — have never enjoyed levels of public funding comparable with other institutions,” notes a Politico Magazine feature on HBCUs. “This persistent inequality has led some states, including Maryland and Mississippi, to be sued for failing to fund black and white public colleges at equal levels.”

One HBCU president who met with Trump and DeVos on Monday was frustrated with how things went.

In a blog post, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, wrote that plans for the day “blew up” after the HBCU leaders were taken to the Oval Office to meet with Trump.

“I’m still processing that entire experience. But needless to say that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today — we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today,” Kimbrough wrote.

In the prepared remarks that Kimbrough never had the opportunity to share with Trump, he planned to criticize “the education as a private good philosophy” that he says has emerged over the last 50 years.

“Since then we’ve seen Federal and State divestment in education, making the idea of education as the path to the American dream more of a hallucination for the poor and disenfranchised,” he planned to say. “In the past decade the wealth gap between whites and blacks has gone from seven to thirteen fold. The median net worth of a single parent white family is twice that of the two parent black family. Black students graduate with 31% more college debt than their white peers. Black students graduate with 31% more college debt than their white peers.”

Kimbrough went on to make a case that Pell Grants should be the equalizer.

But DeVos doesn’t seem particularly concerned about racial disparities in education. During a recent interview with Axios, she didn’t acknowledge that civil rights issues in schools are an ongoing concern.

DeVos said Title IX and school desegregation remain important issues, but when asked if there are “remaining issues like that” where the federal government should intervene, she responded, “I can’t think of any now.”

UPDATE: On Tuesday, DeVos offered prepared remarks during an HBCU luncheon in DC. Despite being widely mocked for the “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” line she used in Monday night’s statement, she reiterated it again during her speech.

DeVos tweeted out some excerpts from her talk.

But unlike her Monday statement, on Tuesday, DeVos made sure to mention that the history of HBCUs “was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

DeVos also used the occasion to introduce Denisha Merriweather, a student who is pursuing her master’s degree in social work at the University of South Florida and previously earned a degree from the University of West Florida — neither of which is a HBCU.

“With the assistance of a school choice program in Florida, Denisha was given a chance to attend a school that better met her needs,” DeVos said. “This is a model we must follow — to provide every child an opportunity to attend a quality school. Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs.”