President Donald Trump’s efforts to bolster relations with historically black colleges erupted in controversy Tuesday after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a statement equating the history of the schools — founded during an era of racial segregation — to “school choice” policies.
“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” DeVos said in the statement, released Monday night in advance of Trump’s planned signing of an executive order giving the schools more clout. “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.”
The executive order, which Trump signed Tuesday afternoon, was supposed be an easy bit of outreach on the final day of Black History Month to the black community that soundly rejected Trump on Election Day. It moves a federal initiative focused on the colleges from the Education Department to the White House — a move the schools had asked for, hoping it will give them better access to the president.
But the goodwill was quickly overshadowed by DeVos’ statement, which came on the heels of a Monday meeting between Trump and presidents of the schools that left some dissatisfied. Some experts on historically black institutions panned the statement as ignorant, while others said she was inadvertently praising segregation.
DeVos later acknowledged racism as an important factor in the history of historically black colleges in an address to the school leaders on Tuesday, according to prepared remarks.
Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions and an expert in historically black colleges and universities, told POLITICO the statement is “inaccurate and a whitewashing of U.S. history.”
“I’m floored,” Gasman said.
Robert Palmer, an education professor at Howard University, said the schools weren’t a matter of choice. They were mostly created in a segregated education system after the Civil War and were for decades the only choice for black students — especially in the South, he said.
DeVos’ statement “was a bit crazy,” Palmer said.
Austin Lane, the president of Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, said he was “puzzled” by the analogy. Lane is one of dozens of HBCU presidents who visited the White House and met with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and DeVos on Monday.
“HBCUs were created for African-Americans because they had no choice and were unable to attend schools due to segregation laws,” Lane said.
DeVos, who was confirmed by the Senate only after Pence cast a tie-breaking vote, has for weeks been a target of the political left. Her comments cap off a rocky Black History Month for the administration, which started with Trump saying Frederick Douglass has “done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more” and included the Education Department misspelling W.E.B. Du Bois’ name on Twitter.
DeVos’ HBCU statement quickly spread online, where it was called “totally nuts” by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and “embarrassingly ignorant” by Donald Heller, the provost of the University of San Francisco.
A spokesman for the Education Department said DeVos’ comments were taken out of context because the statement does address the history of the schools. He said DeVos “certainly understands and respects” the founding of the schools in the face of racism and segregation.
In her remarks to school leaders on Tuesday, DeVos said that “the traditional school systemically failed to provide African-Americans access to a quality education — or, sadly, more often to any education at all.”
“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,” DeVos told the leaders Tuesday, according to the prepared text of her speech.
DeVos’ initial statement was released Monday night after the White House meeting. The leaders are in Washington for two days of events where they’re making pitches for more funding, among other things.
Republicans, including Trump, were hoping to use the opportunity to build relations. GOP lawmakers hosted the school presidents Tuesday at a Capitol Hill event with speakers that included House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
Scott, a supporter of DeVos who introduced her at her confirmation hearing, told reporters Tuesday that her statement could have been worded better.
“Is there a better way to word things? Yes,” Scott said. “I think at the end of the day my only response is that clarity in your statements is always important.”
DeVos also seemed to reject one thing the schools are really hoping to get from the administration: More money. One school president told POLITICO that the colleges had asked the White House to back a $25 billion investment in infrastructure improvements on their campuses in their meeting with DeVos Monday. They also advocated for year-round Pell grants and to maintain or increase funding that goes to schools that serve low-income students.
“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,” DeVos said in her statement.
For Trump, the executive order also was a way to one-up former President Barack Obama, who was extremely popular among black voters but had a rocky relationship with historically black colleges and universities.
During the campaign, Trump promised to “ensure funding” for historically black schools in his “New Deal for Black America,” part of his campaign’s outreach to minorities.
Leaders of the schools had asked Trump for the executive order. In a statement before this week’s meetings, Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents 47 public and publicly funded historically black schools, called it a “significant positive first step in what we hope to be a productive working relationship on behalf of the black college community with the Trump White House.”
Trump called the schools “a grand and enduring symbol of America at its absolute best” while signing the order.
“Historically black colleges and universities are incredibly important institutions woven into the fabric of our history — just about like no other,” Trump said before adding: “Church is very important, right?”
But even before the visit at the White House Monday, some, including the Congressional Black Caucus, were worried it was just a photo-op. The lawmakers sent Trump a letter ahead of the meeting urging him to do more than just take pictures with the leaders.
And after the meeting, some participants complained that the time spent taking photos with Trump cut into a planned listening session with DeVos and Pence.
“There was very little listening to HBCU presidents today,” Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, wrote online.
By: Benjamin Wermund