Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Seem To Understand History Of ‘School Choice’

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been criticized for having no experience in public education, and now she is proving she doesn’t understand the history of the “school choice” schemes she so eagerly embraces. 

On Monday evening, after President Donald J. Trump met with leaders of multiple historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), DeVos, an outspoken “school choice” advocate, released a tone-deaf, inaccurate and bizarre statement. DeVos said HBCUs were the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

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

Here’s the problem: HBCUs were founded because during segregation African-American students were refused admission to other schools. Segregation forced the creation of HBCUs and African-Americans had no choice.

As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (a coalition of which AU is a member) explained: “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.”

He further stated that DeVos should “refrain from suggesting that Jim Crow was about choice for anybody besides segregationist politicians.”

Many others were equally dismayed. Marybeth Gasman, an expert in HBCUs, told Politico that she was “floored” to hear DeVos’s statement, which she called "a whitewashing of U.S. history.”  

DeVos' statement about HBCUs was very inaccurate. 

Austin Lane, a president of a HBCU who met with Trump in the White House earlier that day, said he was “puzzled” by DeVos’ response and clarified that “HBCUs were created for African-Americans because they had no choice and were unable to attend schools due to segregation laws.”

DeVos’s statement also inadvertently highlights another fact that she would likely prefer people forget: vouchers too stem from the Jim Crow-era.

As Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the New York Times Magazine: “The very voucher movement that is at the heart of DeVos’s educational ideas was born of white opposition to school desegregation as state and local governments offered white children vouchers to pay for private schools—known as segregation academies—that sprouted across the South after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954.”

Vouchers cannot escape this history, and 63 years after Brown v. Board of Education, private school vouchers remain a threat to civil rights and religious freedom.

For example, private voucher schools do not provide the same rights and protections to students as public schools, including those that provide protections for students with disabilities, girls and LGBTQ students. Studies also reveal that racial segregation is higher in private schools and how school voucher schemes favor white children.

This is one of the reasons why Americans United remains a leader in the fight against private school vouchers, including as the co-chair of the National Coalition for Public Education.

You too can fight against vouchers by urging your U.S. senators, U.S. representative and state legislators to oppose bills that would allow school voucher programs.