Many advocates of historically black colleges and universities were apoplectic after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called the group of schools forged at the height of racial segregation "pioneers" of "school choice."
DeVos issued a statement Monday evening after a meeting with HBCU leaders, praising their schools for identifying "a system that wasn't working" and taking it "upon themselves to provide the solution" from the outset of their founding.
DeVos said in the statement that HBCUs "started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education."
But the statement did not delve into the historical context behind the creation of HBCUs: that they were a response to racist Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in the South, barring black students from attending traditionally white institutions. Instead, DeVos said HBCUs are "living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality."
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On Tuesday, DeVos spoke at more length with HBCU leaders during a luncheon in Washington. In her prepared remarks, discussing civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, DeVos noted that "the traditional school system systemically failed to provide African-Americans access to a quality education -- or, sadly, more often to any education at all."
DeVos also said in the Tuesday speech: "HBCUs have always been more than simply institutions of higher learning. You have long represented a challenge to the status quo, starting by providing a necessary opportunity to African-Americans following the Civil War."
Her Monday evening statement drew immediate backlash on social media. Tweets poked fun of her characterization of HBCUs as about school choice -- "as if white/colored water fountains were about beverage options" and comparing the Montgomery bus boycott to "pioneering new scenic walking paths."
Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, accused DeVos of whitewashing HBCU history in a Twitter post:
The Trump administration's outreach to historically black colleges has been met with skepticism as critics accuse the president of using the schools for political gain. DeVos's Monday statement appeared to give further fuel to that criticism.
The Education Department's website covers some of the history of HBCUs, including a statement from President George H.W. Bush describing their unique mission:
"At a time when many schools barred their doors to black Americans, these colleges offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education."
Historically black colleges date to the pre-Civil War era when public policy in parts of the nation barred blacks from education. The Second Morrill Act in 1890 required states with racially segregated public higher education systems to provide land-grant institutions for black students.
The 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established a "separate but equal" doctrine in public education. But blacks schools were hardly equal. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled the doctrine unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, most HBCUs remained segregated, with poorer facilities, including libraries and research labs, and budgets than traditionally white colleges. When the the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, 19 states were operating racially segregated higher education systems. States gave pennies on the dollar to public historically black colleges for decades, leaving them with a fraction of funding lavished on predominantly white public institutions. That legacy has kept many HBCUs at a disadvantage to this day.
Here is the full text of DeVos' Monday evening statement following a meeting with HBCU leaders at the White House:
"A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn't working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution. 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. Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today."