DeVos cites school choice rather than racism in founding of black colleges

In using Historically Black Colleges and Universities to sell school choice Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spurred an immediate backlash.

Her comment: 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 great quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

The backlash: It wasn't school choice that drove the creation of African-American colleges; it was segregation and racism that denied black students access to higher education.

Among widely repeated comments on social media this morning:

"Betsy DeVos said HBCUs were about school choice. As if white/colored water fountains were about beverage options."

"Rosa Parks is a real pioneer when it comes to seat choice."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., responded, "No, Secretary DeVos - the segregation and inequality that forced the establishment of HBCUs is not a model of "school choice."

Social media also is having a field day with the related photo of HBCU presidents meeting Monday with President Trump in the Oval Office as Kellyanne Conway curls up on the couch and looks at her phone. (It may be she was looking at the photo she had just taken of the college presidents and Trump but it is a casual pose for a formal setting.)

About 15 college leaders were told to prepare statements about how the federal government could help their institutions. Those remarks were supposed to be delivered to DeVos and other administration officials, but the plan shifted when Trump himself met with the presidents, leaving less time for the college leaders to speak.

Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough released what he would have said. Kimbrough has deep Georgia roots. He is an Atlanta native who holds degrees from the University of Georgia and Georgia State and worked at Emory, Georgia State and Albany State.

Here is his statement:

In his Oscars acceptance speech last night, Mahershala Ali celebrated American’s belief in the transformative power of education when he first thanked his teachers and professors. Historically black colleges and universities are living testimonies of this power, the central force in educating people inextricably linked to the promise of America.

Fifty years ago a philosophy emerged suggesting education was no longer a public good, but a private one. 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.

There is no doubt who is left to hallucinate.

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, Latino Two-Parent Families Have Half The Wealth Of White Single Parents:

Student Debt and the White-Black Wealth Gap

Why have black Americans had so little success in closing the wealth gap with whites?

The Pell Grant should be the equalizer. It serves 36% of all students, 62% of Black students, and over 70% attending HBCUs. But the education as a private good philosophy has severely limited its impact on the neediest families.

Therefore we must:

• Raise the maximum Pell Grant, which has hit a 40-year low in purchasing power relative to college costs and index it permanently to account for inflation

• Restore year-round Pell Grants that enable students to finish college faster and with less debt;

• And remove time limits to benefit growing numbers of part time students who may require more than 12 semesters to graduate.

DeVos revisited the choice theme today during a luncheon speech with HBCU leaders. DeVos singled out a Florida student who benefited, she said, by school choice. In the speech, DeVos avoids her earlier mistake of casting HBCUs as pioneering school choice. Today, she referenced racism in the founding of black colleges.

Just over half of African-American high school students have access to the full range of high-level math and science courses that are gateways to college. This reality is troubling, and it is wholly unacceptable. But it’s also what motivates us, and it is part of the reason the President intends to deliver on his promise to help those who have long been forgotten by offering more opportunity to low-income families whose children deserve access to a high-quality education.

One of those students who has benefited from choice is with us today, my friend Denisha Merriweather.

Denisha’s story is one of struggle, difficulty and triumph: Raised by a single mother in poverty, she moved from one school to another. Failed the third grade, not once but twice.

Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic, and following her mother and brother, who both dropped out of high school.

But her godmother intervened, and with the assistance of a school choice program in Florida, Denisha was given a chance to attend a school that better met her needs.

Today, she’s not only the first in her family to graduate high school, she’s graduated college. And this May, she’ll graduate from her master’s program.

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.

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.

HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many. You made higher education accessible to students who otherwise would have been denied the opportunity.

America must provide the opportunity for a high-quality education to every child -- where they live. There should be no excuses based upon ZIP code or family income.

We need more good schools. We need more good teachers. And no child should be denied the opportunity to enter a great school. Not one.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.