On Tuesday, newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a statement after she and several key members of the Trump administration held a listening session with leaders from several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Monday’s session saw nearly 90 HBCU heads express their needs to Vice President Mike Pence and Sec. DeVos. This session came immediately after the group met with President Trump in the Oval Office.
In her statement, DeVos praised HBCUs for being “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Her comment quickly drew sharp criticism from black leaders. Many of the nation’s HBCUs were founded after the Civil War in response to Jim Crow-era segregation. Most traditional Universities would not admit black students, so their choices were extremely limited when it came to higher education.
Walter Kimbrough, Dillard University’s president who was present for the meeting, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the statement “didn’t come across as ill-spirited” but still found it to be a bad analogy and hopes that Sec. DeVos will clarify her comments.
Kimbrough also found issue with DeVos’ assertion that the administration will not “focus solely on funding.” Kimbrough says that funding is a central issue to the nation’s black students. Kimbrough pointed out that over 70% of the student population at HBCUs receive Pell Grant assistance.
Despite the criticism of DeVos’ statement, the meeting was welcomed by the HBCU community, as President Trump plans to sign an executive order that would boost the White House’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Carter-era initiative set aside budget items to benefit black colleges, but The United Negro College Fund requested that Mr. Trump move the program from the Department of Education to the White House, with more access to senior advisers.
DeVos’ school choice backing threatens to take funding away from failing schools who may need the funding the most. A study of Department of Education data showed a direct correlation with low-income student achievement and increased funding for their schools. However, proponents of school choice argue that despite increasing education budgets, the gap between white and black students continues to grow.
DeVos’ tone-deaf attempts to connect her programs to a bleak time in American history easily overshadowed any public goodwill that President Trump’s executive order offered. Perhaps she should learn from Trump’s missteps and be much more careful in the words she chooses.
Predictably though, Trump’s meeting with the HBCU leaders wasn’t without its own share of internet fodder. Pictures of White House Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway made the rounds on social media overnight. In the photos, Conway is kneeling, unprofessionally, on an Oval Office couch in an effort to snap pictures of the event with her smartphone.