WASHINGTON – The education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is facing a fierce backlash after she called historically black colleges and universities “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
On Twitter, hundreds of angry users accused her of ignoring the fact that many of the schools were founded because black students were not allowed to attend segregated white schools, not because education pioneers wanted to give blacks more options in higher education. DeVos, an aggressive backer of publicly funded vouchers that public-school students could use for private-school tuition, released her comments Monday evening shortly after meeting with several presidents from historically black colleges and universities.
DeVos began the statement by praising the schools for making “tangible, structural reforms” that allow students, often underserved, from reaching their full potential.
“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education,” she said in the statement. “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.”
Historically black colleges and universities “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” the statement continued. “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.”
On Twitter, users quickly took issue with DeVos, who was scheduled to speak at a luncheon for the school presidents at the Library of Congress on Tuesday afternoon, accusing her of using the nation’s history of segregation to advance a contemporary political agenda.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called the statement “totally nuts,” adding that DeVos was “pretending that establishment of historically black colleges was about choice, not racism.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote that DeVos “appears ignorant of racial segregation” during the Jim Crow era.
DeVos took heat during her confirmation hearing for what appeared to be a lack of knowledge about federal education laws, such as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, and the role of the Department of Education in student loans and other policies. Those lapses were cited by two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who voted against her confirmation, which ultimately passed when Vice President Mike Pence cast the tiebreaking vote.
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