MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, long a critic of public education and a promoter of charter schools, opportunistically used historical Black colleges this week to promote "school choice" -- a euphemistic term used to describe alternatives to public education including charter schools and vouchers. A February 28 NBC News article describes the backlash to her comments:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew wide-spread criticism after describing historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as "pioneers when it comes to school choice"…
DeVos made the comment in a meeting with dozens of HBCU presidents who had met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office Monday.
In a statement released after a listening session with the leaders, Devos noted that "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 greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."
Many were quick to point out, however, that HBCUs were born out of a lack of options for black Americans following the Civil War -- when segregation and Jim Crow laws barred them from attending institutions of higher education.
DeVos was barely confirmed as secretary of education, with Vice President Mike Pence needing to rescue her nomination by breaking a 50-50 vote deadlock in the Senate in his role as president of that branch of Congress. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against DeVos, citing her opposition to public schools and her lack of understanding of the role of public education in urban and rural settings. The New York Times reported that "it was the first time a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination."
DeVos's confirmation was further marred by the revelation that DeVos appears to have committed plagiarism in her written responses to the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
DeVos's remarks about HBCUs, meanwhile, reflect a deep failure -- embedded in the engrained structural racism of our society -- to acknowledge the violent history of racism and segregation that led to the creation of historically Black colleges and universities.
DeVos's claim further undercuts any expectation that she could, as Washington pundits like to say about people who are appointed to high positions, rise to meet the challenges of being a secretary of education for the entire nation.
Because of the uproar created by her attempt to pin historical black colleges to her advocacy of non-public school options, DeVos, according to Talking Points Memo, tried to backtrack on Twitter within a few hours of her original remarks:
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday tried to walk back her suggestion that historically black colleges were the product of a "school choice" movement rather than legalized segregation and Jim Crow laws.
"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," DeVos tweeted. "HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many."
Such damage control, however, does not obscure the racism of her original statement and just how perversely convoluted it is to try to employ Black colleges and universities as examples of school choice and vouchers. Remember, DeVos is a true believer in privatized education through shrinking public school options. In many ways the result of mandated "school choice" shifts education to re-segregation under the guise of "improving it."
The NBC News article included many criticisms of DeVos's initial statement, including that of Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), who denounced DeVos' initial statement in a tweet:
"Tone-deaf, uninformed statement from DeVos. #HBCUs weren't 'more options' for black students - for many years, they were the ONLY option," Lee wrote....
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also skewered DeVos, suggesting she "study the history" of HBCUs and "check the facts."
"HBCUs were created in response to a racist system of segregation that saw the education of black people as a threat to white supremacy -- a belief central to slavery -- and that refused to allow black people to participate in the education system available only to white people," Henderson said in a statement.
This racist legacy still impacts education in the United States, and "school choice" won't resolve it. The only thing that will accomplish this goal is changing the twisted perceptions of people like Betsy DeVos and deracinating racism from the top down, including -- of course -- in our educational system.