DeVos needs history lesson after HBCU school choice comment
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This week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDeVos forgives 1,500 student loans amid federal lawsuit Warren campaign launches 'a calculator for the billionaires' after Gates criticism Education Department finalizes new regulations to relax college-accreditation requirements MORE called the nation's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) "real pioneers when it comes to school choice."

The problems with DeVos's comment are twofold.

First, DeVos knows that school choice discussions at the K-12 level are inherently different than those at the higher education level, yet tried to use the history and success of HBCUs to further her agenda. What is ironic is that many of the students that attend HBCUs are the same students that would be hurt, and have their aspirations and futures damaged, by DeVos's push for school choice.

DeVos and school choice advocates claim that school choice policies do not drain public schools of resources, claiming that public schools are relieved of the cost of educating those students who use school choice programs. However, they fail to note that declining enrollments due to school choice programs lead to public schools closing — and this fails students in lower-income communities most.

The second issue with DeVos's statement is her utter lack of understanding of U.S. and HBCU history.

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Historically black colleges and universities were not a choice for African-Americans throughout most of their history — they were the only institutions, with very few exceptions, that would accept African-Americans due to the intense racism and segregation in the United States.

 

According to DeVos, HBCUs came about because there were "too many students in America who did not have equal access to education." In truth, HBCUs had to be created to educate the millions of African-Americans who had been starved of formal education during our nation's brutal practice of slavery.

Today, HBCUs do offer a choice to African-American students and many decide to attend them because of their strong academic programs, track record for successfully placing students in graduate and professional programs, family-oriented environments, and the ability to learn without facing white racism and microaggressions on a daily basis. 

HBCUs embrace students where they are and believe in their success. All colleges and universities have a lot to learn from HBCUs.

DeVos did get one thing right: HBCUs are pioneers. They are pioneers in providing culturally relevant, high-quality education that empowers and uplifts African-Americans when no one else would.

That is a mission HBCUs are committed to and one we as a nation need to support with financial investments at the individual, foundation, corporate, state and federal levels.

If we don't, we all lose whether we realize it or not.

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Gasman sends her daughter to a public high school in the city of Philadelphia.


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