By Sara Maldonado and Carlos Ibarra 

You may have recently seen the following headline: “DeVos hailed the segregated higher education system as a ‘school choice’ success story.” The controversial U.S. Secretary of Education made a remarkably inaccurate claim when she authorized the release of a Department of Education statement calling Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” Her statement posed several gaps in the history of HBCU’s and the racial climate in effect during their establishment. 

This is not only racially problematic but historically inaccurate. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos claimed, “[HBCUs] started from the fact that there were too many students in American who did not have equal access to education.” However, as Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving-Institutions pointed out, HBCUs were not created because African Americans felt that they needed more choice or that the public education system was not “working for them.”  

As reported by POLITICO, Austin Lane, President of Texas Southern University stated, “HBCUs were created for African-Americans because they had no choice and were unable to attend schools due to segregation laws.” HBCU’s were not founded because “there was an absence of opportunity” for students of color, as DeVos stated, but rather because of Jim Crow segregation in American colleges and universities. Factually, there were plenty of opportunities- for White students. By design and practice, the Jim Crow era education system was carrying out its agenda to segregate students and provide an inequitable education. 

From history textbooks to the particular verbiage used to describe slavery and reparations in the classroom, our education system perpetuates a particular view of our country’s narrative. As James Loewen argues in his 1995 book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” our public education system takes a Eurocentric perspective in the portrayal of our country’s history. The way we teach history glosses over the inequity that has existed in this country for hundreds of years and diminishes the ramifications that slavery, Japanese internment camps, anti-immigration policies, and other inequities have had on our society. 

Secretary DeVos demonstrated a general lack of understanding of American history of access to quality education for historically underrepresented students. Center for Powerful Public Schools is committed to learning from the country’s true history of access to education and taking those lessons to inform how we build out our future schools.