James Lartey, The Guardian, February 28, 2017
Betsy DeVos, the controversial newly appointed secretary of education, is facing scorn on Capitol Hill and around the country after releasing a statement that compared the emergence of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), amid pervasive and overt racial exclusion, with the battle for “school choice”.
In a statement tied to a listening session with HBCU leaders, DeVos said HBCUs “are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”.
“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” the statement said.
DeVos appeared to by trying to make the point, popular with conservatives, that when schools operate in a marketplace, they tend to fill the otherwise unserved needs of students.
To many the intended argument didn’t survive the contradiction of associating HBCUs, born out of necessity when black Americans were almost uniformly barred from existing universities by racist admittance policies, with the idea of “choice”.
“Yesterday’s attempt to whitewash the the stain of segregation into an argument for privatizing our public schools is perhaps a new low in her current position,” said the Michigan congressman John Conyers, who also called the statement “shocking and insulting”.
The comparison was also awkward because the issue of “school choice” virtually always refers not to colleges but to K-12 education where, traditionally, students are assigned to a public school district according to their address.
“School choice” is at the foundation of DeVos’s public education agenda. The billionaire education secretary, with no formal background in the field, has long been a proponent of allowing parents to opt out of public schools. Most experts in the field counter that school voucher systems and other similar programs tend to exacerbate the unequal distribution of educational resources. “These schemes do nothing to help our most vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps,” argued the National Education Association in November in reaction to her nomination by Donald Trump.
Nikole Hannah Jones, a reporter who has written extensively on school segregation, added that much of the contemporary conservative rhetoric about school choice is actually a function of the same racist, segregationist impulses that made HBCUs necessary in the 19th-century US. In many places in the country, the push for school choice has been pioneered by white parents seeking ways to remove their children from integrated or predominantly black public schools.
DeVos’s statement comes, somewhat ironically, as Trump signs an executive order to relocate the White House Initiative on HBCUs, a program that has existed since 1980, to the White House. It had previously been administered by DeVos’s Department of Education, but will now be led by an official who reports to a senior adviser to the president.