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As a professor at Florida A&M University, I was cautiously optimistic when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had a luncheon with presidents from some HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). As might be suspected, HBCUs often face funding issues and increased support would be very welcome. This is especially relevant in Florida since the state has not only cut education funding, it has also imposed a punitive performance based funding system in which state schools must compete. While the top three schools are rewarded with more funding, the bottom three schools are punished. Since there must always be a bottom three, there will always be three schools being punished—even if they are doing a good job.
While this should have been an easy public relations victory for DeVos, she ignited a firestorm with her attempt to whitewash the history of HBCUS and link them with her ideology of school choice. Apparently ignorant of history, she said that HBCUS “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” and added that “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.”
The obvious problem with her remark is that HBCUS were not pioneers of school choice; they were the result of a system of segregation that denied black students access to white colleges and universities. This segregation also extended to black educators, because “when segregation was rampant some of the most brilliant black educators had to come to [black colleges] in order to have an opportunity to teach. They couldn’t go any place else.” DeVos’ remarks about choice are thus both ironic and ignorant—HBCUs arose in a situation in which there was very little choice for black students. While there were a very few white schools that accepted black students, the real choice for most blacks was a black school or no school.
DeVos was, however, correct to claim that “more options help students flourish” in that having an option to attend college helps students flourish more than having no option. This is, however, rather different than the school choice she envisions as a model for education. As such, her effort to draw an analogy between HBCUs and her vision of school choice fails. While her remarks might have been a result of mere unforgivable ignorance (the secretary of education should have at least a basic grasp of the major historical facts of American education), they could also be taken as expressing a view that favors segregation.
While this might seem like a stretch, it is well worth considering the history of the sort of private schools that DeVos praises. While the Brown decision led to desegregation in the public schools, the ruling did not apply to private schools. As the public schools desegregated, white began to flee to “segregation academies.” This has contributed to a significant increase in public school segregation. While some might argue that using public money to fund private schools will address the problem of segregation, the data shows that private schools are even more segregated than public schools. Shifting public funds to private schools will result in an even more unequal system: well-funded, highly segregated private schools and poorly funded highly segregated public schools.
While I am not accusing DeVos of racism, it is tempting to see her praise of HBCUs and support for them in sinister terms. That is, that there is an intent to mirror the segregation at the K-12 level with segregation at the college and university level. Somewhat ironically, the desegregation of higher education had left HBCUs in search of a new mission to replace that of providing education to black students who lacked opportunities at white schools. DeVos, it seems, might be interested in making the old mission relevant again.