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 is scheduled to issue 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 is expected to move a federal initiative focused on the colleges from the Education Department to the White House and set an aspirational goal for government spending at the schools.
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.
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. He said DeVos will address the history during a speech today at a Capitol Hill event focused on HBCUs.
DeVos’ statement says the schools “started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. 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.”
DeVos’ 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 are hosting the school presidents Tuesday at a Capitol Hill event with speakers that include House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
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 leaders 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.”
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.