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DeVos Slammed for Calling Historically Black Colleges Choice ‘Pioneers’

By Alyson Klein — February 28, 2017 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called Historically Black Colleges and Universities “pioneers of school choice” in a statement Monday night—and set off a social media firestorm.

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” DeVos said after meeting with dozens of college presidents and chancellors of HBCUs at the White House Monday. “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.”

Those sentiments ignited social media platforms, with numerous folks saying on Twitter that HBCUs were set up primarily because, as a result of segregation, many students in the South didn’t have a choice about where they went to school. In many cases, they were barred from attending public universities for white students. (Further explanation here from Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Education.)

A department official explained that DeVos’ remarks were part of a brief statement, and that she’ll get into greater detail in a speech Tuesday to HBCU officials and advocates at the Library of Congress. The official said that DeVos understands and respects that HBCUs were founded in the context of segregation.

DeVos’ statement also said she’d be looking to HBCUs for advice in “addressing the current inequities we face in education.”

In prepared remarks DeVos was slated to give to HBCU leaders Tuesday, the secretary sounded a somewhat different note from her Monday statement, and emphasized that HBCUs grew out of educational segregation. She highlighted the story of Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded what became Bethune-Cookman University, saying Bethune recognized that traditional schools “systemically failed to provide African-Americans access to a quality education -- or, sadly, more often to any education at all.”

“Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs,” DeVos’ prepared remarks read. “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.”

Still, her initial link between choice and HBCUs has generated plenty of social media pushback.

And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee who opposed DeVos’ nomination to helm the department, also weighed in, saying that DeVos’ “backwards, utterly confused comments about the history of HBCUs last night only make it clearer how unqualified she is to serve all of our students.

So why the attention on HBCUs? President Donald Trump met Monday with leaders from HBCUs, who were in Washington to push for additional financial support for their institutions.

It’s unclear if they can expect that financial boost. DeVos’ statement noted that advocates and policymakers shouldn’t focus “solely on funding” but instead “be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.”

Trump is expected to issue an executive order moving the federal initiative on HBCUs from the Education Department to the White House, according to the Associated Press. Great background and context on what that move would mean from Inside Higher Ed and from Politico.

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