History Lesson for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is under fire after saying historically black colleges are “pioneers” of school choice. The racially insensitive statement has angered many. Released after a meeting on Monday with presidents and chancellors of Historically Black Colleges and Universities at the White House, DeVos held up HBCUs as the pioneers in school choice.

DeVos has made her platform on diverting federal educational funds very public. Her press release showed great historical inaccuracy and insensitivity about the roots of HCBUs.

“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education.”

The statement, whilst acknowledging the fact that HBCUs were founded to address the unequal educational opportunities for African Americans, fails to recognize the fact that this inequality was a direct result of racist laws. Pundits are angry that DeVos’s statement paints a picture of choice and options, ”( HBCUs) are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”. African Americans did not have options and choice in their education, as a result of Jim Crow laws, their options and choice were less than other Americans.

The Jim Crow segregation laws in the Southern states banned African American’s from attending white schools and Universities. African Americans did not have the great scope of school choice DeVos speaks of in her press release, they had no choice and that is what led to the founding of HBCUs.

US President-elect Donald Trump listens as Betsy DeVos, his pick for education secretary, speaks during the USA Thank You Tour December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. / AFP / DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Critics of DeVos claim that she is lacking in her historical accuracy and may herself need to go back to school. To state that African Americans have pioneered school choice, when the fact of the mater is quite the opposite is true, is hurtful to the many African American people who were affected by the Jim Crow laws. Many took to Twitter comparing DeVos’s comments about schooling choice to the choice African Americans had regarding drinking fountains during the time of segregation.

In an effort to undo the damage, DeVos spoke at a HBCU Luncheon in Washington on Tuesday. In her speech she acknowledged that the educational system for African Americans had not always encompassed choice and equality. She also spoke of the disparity in educational outcomes between African Americans and non-African American Americans.

The events were part of a two day ‘HBCU Fly In’ of college and university executives and White House staff which resulted in President Trump signing a new Executive Order outlining a partnership between HBCUs and the White House. The Executive Order is reported to cover new standards of funding and federal support for HBCUs. It is also expected to detail mandatory funding benchmarks from federal agencies for grants and contracts.

DeVos has told HBCUs to be ready for an Active partnership with the White House. Bowie State University President Mickey L. Burnim told the Associated Press, “Anything that the Trump administration could do to channel more federal dollars in the form of grants and contracts to and through the HBCUs would really benefit our institutions and in many cases, our communities, as well,”

Betsy DeVos, a multi billionaire and long time Republican, has had a controversial time during her short period in office. Winning with one vote, DeVos and her support for private schooling has no support from the Democrats. She strongly supports the deregulation of public schools and seems to have little understanding of the issues that public schools face.

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee, she was unable to discuss and seemed unaware of federal law protecting students with disabilities and could not explain how standardized tests were measured.

On her first visit to Jefferson Academy in DC, she was physically blocked by protesters from entering the building. The protest, which was organized by the Washington Teacher’s Union, was in the hopes of getting DeVos to appreciate the importance of her new role in supporting public schooling and equal education. DeVos was later able to enter the school and met with teachers, administrators and students. She later released a press release stating that she was committed to strengthening public education.

President Trump signed the HBCU Executive Order on Tuesday stating, “We will make HBCUs a priority in the White House — an absolute priority.” Already some of the university presidents have come under fire for signing the Executive Order following DeVos’s comments. Graffiti on a Howard University Pathway boldly reads, “Welcome to Trump’s Plantation. Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick”.

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