Supporters of historically black colleges and universities say US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos needs a history lesson after calling schools created in response to racial segregation “pioneers” of school choice.
DeVos issued the statement Monday after meeting HBCU leaders in the White House with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. It was the first of a two-day event to foster introductions between campus executives and the administration before the President signed an executive order Tuesday related to HBCUs.
DeVos is an ardent supporter of diverting federal funds to school choice, or alternatives to public schools. In her statement, she said a key priority for the administration is to develop opportunities for underserved communities through funding and structural reforms, just as HBCUs have done “since their founding.”
She praised the schools for identifying a system that wasn’t working – “an absence of opportunity” – and taking it upon themselves “to provide the solution.”
“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education,” she said of the schools.
“HBCUs are 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.”
However well-intentioned, her statement triggered backlash among HBCU supporters who said she failed to acknowledge the real reason for their creation.
HBCUs arose in response to racist Jim Crow laws in the American South that enforced segregation, shutting out black students from traditionally white schools with a few exceptions.
“Excuse me, [Betsy DeVos], the system you’re describing isn’t ‘choice.’ It’s Jim Crow and segregation,” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said on Twitter.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, called the statement “tone-deaf” and “uninformed,” noting that for many years, HBCUs weren’t additional options but the “only option.”
DeVos appeared to backpedal on her remarks Tuesday. She acknowledged at a luncheon that HBCU founder Mary McLeod Bethune started Bethune-Cookman University in Florida because traditional schools “systemically failed to provide African Americans access to a quality education.”
“Providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of #HBCUs,” DeVos said on Twitter. “But your history was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”
The HBCU Digest described the “Fly-In” event “a rare advocacy convening” in which the administration declared its “admiration and support for the mission of historically black colleges and universities.”
The meeting culminated in Trump signing a new executive order directing the White House Initiative on HBCUs to operate from the White House instead of the Education Department. Advocates called it “among the most progressive partnerships between the White House and HBCUs in decades,” according to HBCU Digest.