Wednesday, March 1, 2017

DeVos, HBCU, and Justice

There is just so much to unpack about Betsy DeVos's bonkers attempt to rewrite the story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities into an advertisement for school choice.

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

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.

DeVos has been justly and repeatedly slammed for this. See also here. Or especially this Slate piece.

The statement is wrong on so many levels. She tried some damage control later, but that was not much of an improvement:

“Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs,” she said, according to prepared remarks released by her office. “But 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.”

She chalked the HBCU story up to structural changes, but since she is personally as rich as all HBCUs put together, that rings a little hollow. And there's a huge irony in that vouchers and charters became popular in the South as a means of escaping the collapse of Jim Crow laws.

But I want to focus on one other aspect of this revelatory mess-- what it says about DeVos's "solution" for a twisted system, a system that is formally and deliberately unjust.

What DeVos could have said was something along the lines of, "HBCUs never should have had to happen. Those of us who had the power should never have made them necessary, and we should have torn down Jim Crow laws and the other barriers that prevented Black Americans from claiming the educations and lives to which they were entitled. HBCUs made the best of an unjust situation that should never have been allowed to stand."

Instead, she came up with something along the lines of, "Well, see? Y'all just solved the problem on your own, just like we've been telling you you could, and we didn't need to lift a finger."

Who needs to pursue justice when you can market choice instead?

Who needs to address the systemic and deliberately underfunding of schools that serve non-white non-wealthy communities, when you can just market choice instead?

If black folks show a little grit and get a charter or two, we don't have to even talk about the real problem at all.

DeVos has accidentally underlined the other problem with choice. Problem number one, discussed at length both here and elsewhere, is that choice doesn't solve any of the problems that its fans claim it solves. But problem number two, in many ways more stealthy and more destructive, is that implementing choice lets some folks pretend that they no longer have to address any of the systemic issues in public systems.

Is a major urban system screwing over its poor communities (say, perhaps, Chicago)? That's okay-- there are a couple of charter schools in place which students have "access" to (and which a handful of students will actually get to attend), so we don't have to talk about the larger problems any more! Hooray!


  1. Insightful. And as so often, you go a layer deeper in the unpacking.

  2. DeVos is very Biblical. Is stoning still allowed in "Christian" countries? If not, I'd favor bringing it back in her case.

  3. On spot again. Definitely. I love your column and never miss a day!!!

  4. I find DeVos' syntax strange and unsettling.

    "Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs,” she said, according to prepared remarks released by her office. Your history was born, not out of mere choice.."

    What is this? She's basically Betsysplaining to the presidents of many colleges and universities what they are all about. It's especially offensive in light of the fact that she knows n-o-t-h-i-n-g about the field of education at all, and certainly less than nothing about HBCU's.

    I'm afraid she may actually believe that Black colleges were a kind of start up. Maybe that's what she's been taught as the truth over the course of her private education.

    Oh - and there's Kellyann on the sofa, too, scanning her iPhone.

    Total lack of respect for the position and the contributions of these educators and the institutions they head up.

    Christine Langhoff