Home > Uncategorized > I’m Not Sure Which is More Infuriating: Secretary DeVos’ Speech or the NYTimes Editorial Board’s Reaction

I’m Not Sure Which is More Infuriating: Secretary DeVos’ Speech or the NYTimes Editorial Board’s Reaction

March 1, 2017

Yesterday Betsy DeVos gave a speech of fewer than 200 words to a gathering of representatives of the Historically Black Schools that displayed her complete ignorance of the history of the Civil Rights movement— and the backlash was swift and merciless. Here’s the speech in it’s entirety with a few phrases highlighted:

A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. 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.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They 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.
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. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.
Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post offered immediate reports on the speech, with both papers focusing on Mr. DeVos erroneous characterization as HBSU’s as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and overlooking her assertion that there is no need to “focus on funding”. The Times reported that Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, called the statement “totally nuts” and Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, noted Ms. DeVos apparent ignorance of racism during the Jim Crow era. The Post offered a lengthier critique, highlighting Twitter posts the “…poked fun of her characterization of HBCUs as about school choice— “as if white/colored water fountains were about beverage options” and comparing the Montgomery bus boycott to “pioneering new scenic walking paths.“ The Post also cited information on the USDOE web page and speeches from former Presidents that accurately captured the reason HBSU’s were created.

And this morning, the NYTimes editorial board took Ms. DeVos to task for her “Fake History” about school choice. They wrote:

Rather than integrate colleges, the Southern and border states established parallel, Jim Crow systems in which black college students were typically confined to segregated campuses handicapped by meager budgets and inferior libraries and facilities. Litigation over the funding equity issue continues to this day.

Ms. DeVos’s insulting distortion of history, which she tried to pull back after furious criticism, grows out of her obsession with market-driven school policies, including the idea of a publicly funded voucher program that public school students could use to pay for private education.

The Times then provided a recap of Kevin Carey’s recent article that debunked the notion that school choice in the form of vouchers would make any difference whatsoever. They conclude their editorial with these paragraphs:

At the very least, these studies show that the private schools cannot be presumed superior to public schools. These dismal results also make clear that free-market mechanisms that work well in business can be damaging when applied to the lives of schoolchildren.

Ms. DeVos’s strange interpretation of this country’s racist history was probably meant to pave the way for market-driven education policies. Ignorant statements notwithstanding, those policies have proved to be failures.

The Times attack on Ms. DeVos creative “history” of HBSU’s and her advocacy for vouchers overlook two fundamental realities, realities the Times consistently fails to account for.

First, contrary to Ms. DeVos assertion that we can ignore funding as an issue, money DOES matter…. and our states and nation as a whole continue to underfund schools that serve minority children and children raised in poverty. Indeed, a compelling case can be made that Jim Crow has not disappeared. Instead it is manifest in our housing patterns, our school district zoning practices, and our funding for public education. If I were in Ms. DeVos position I would use a speech before the HBCU’s to underscore this point.

Second, contrary to the Times editorial Board’s positions on the issue, there is no unequivocal research to support school choice in any form as the solution to the seemingly intractable “failure” of public education. The assertions in this editorial that private schools cannot be presumed superior to public schools and free-market mechanisms that work well in business can be damaging when applied to the lives of schoolchildren contradict the editorial stance the Times has taken in the past when it speaks out in favor of the expansion of for-profit private charters like Eva Moskovitz’ Success Academy.

There is a potential for some good to come out of Ms. DeVos’ gaffe. HBSU leaders have a golden opportunity to take Ms. DeVos up on her offer to elevate their role in setting policy going forward and offer some prescriptions of their own. I trust that those prescriptions might include equitable funding for all public schools, more federal funding for HBSUs, and an effort to reverse the New Jim Crow policies— like limiting voting rights— before they take root.

Finally, Ms. DeVos gaffe may force us to face the disagreeable fact that we are still operating separate and unequal schools and school districts… and that choice and vouchers will not get us where we need to go. Systemic change, an increase in funds for social services, and a change of hearts and minds is needed.

  1. Abigail Shure
    March 1, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    Great post!

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