Sometimes things happen so quickly in the Trump administration that it’s hard to keep up. We originally intended this post as a response to the remarks Betsy DeVos delivered at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). As we were in the process of composing it, however, her office released a statement about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that is, at best, breathtaking in its tone deafness. More than that though, it is absolutely appalling in its blindness to the history of race in the United States in general, and of racial segregation in US education in particular. The statement followed what the Trump administration called “a listening session” with HBCU leaders, and it is worth quoting in full:
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.
Not only is there no mention here of racism as the reason why HBCU’s exist in the first place, but this statement also implies that Jim Crow segregation actually had a silver lining, in that it motivated HBCUs to become “real pioneers [of] school choice.” To be fair, DeVos has sought to clarify her statement, acknowledging in prepared remarks at a luncheon for the HBCU leaders, as quoted in The New York Times, that HBCU’s were “born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.” She also sent out a couple of tweets hoping to cement that clarification as her authentic position:
#HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 28, 2017
But 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.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 28, 2017
These clarifications notwithstanding, though, the moral obtuseness of her original statement demonstrates as clearly as anything we can think of the danger in being so single-mindedly focused on the market-driven approach to educational reform that DeVos champions. Consider, for example, what DeVos said at CPAC, addressing herself to the college students in the audience, “The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”
Given her audience, of course, DeVos did not have to specify “the liberal education establishment,” but she nonetheless made that characterization clear in her next sentence, “They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community.” Here’s a video of her remarks in their entirety:
The canard that higher education serves as an engine of left-wing political indoctrination is of course not new; nor is the enthusiastic embrace of conservative educational ideology by our nation’s highest education official. What is new, however, is how spectacularly unqualified DeVos is for the job she’s been given. Not only does she lack even a day of actual classroom teaching experience; not only is giving millions of dollars to failed school voucher programs in her home state of Michigan the only experience with education she has; but, as demonstrated in this exchange with Senator Al Franken during her confirmation hearings, she appears to lack even a basic understanding of what’s at stake—and the stakes, of course, are not low—in different approaches to assessing student learning:
There are many reasons to be concerned about this lack of experience—among them, that they result in the kind of statement she made about HBCUs—but we’d like to draw your attention specifically to how it connects to something else she said to the college students who attended CPAC:
Defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to protect their special interests and their gig. So we need you to engage, to be loud and to never stop fighting for what we believe. We need you to call, write, email, Tweet and Snap every politician who thinks the status quo is ok and that they know better than you when it comes to your education.
At least for the moment, since it too is nothing new, leave aside the “stop-at-nothing-to-protect-their-gig” dig at teachers unions and consider what it means for our nation’s secretary of education to tell college students that no one “know[s] better than [they do] when it comes to [their] education.” Talk about putting the cart before the horse! Students come to college to get an education. How could they possibly “know better?” More to the point, though, the engaged, committed, critical thinkers she was urging those college students to be in “fighting for what [they] believe” would seem to bear little resemblance to the students to whom she first appeared to be addressing herself, those in need of protection from the liberal machinations of the education establishment.
DeVos, of course, would likely argue that we’ve missed the point. It’s not that students require protection from liberal thinking, we imagine she would say, but that they deserve to have restored to them the liberty she believes the “education establishment” has taken away: the liberty to choose, in a free market unfettered by government regulation, the kind of education you think is best for you.
The truth, however, and of course, is that this approach is fraught with significant risk. In DeVos’ home state of Michigan, for example, the version of school choice she champions has been, by all accounts, a dismal failure. Moreover, new research, some of it conducted in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana, shows that students who receive vouchers end up with “large negative results in both reading and math.” While it’s not about a math or reading deficit per se, this story, about one student in Detroit, told by Kate Zernike in the The New York Times is emblematic:
[Ana Rivera] enrolled her older son, Damian, at the charter school across from her house, where she could watch him walk into the building. He got all A’s and said he wanted to be an engineer. But the summer before seventh grade, he found himself in the back of a classroom at a science program at the University of Michigan, struggling to keep up with students from Detroit Public Schools, known as the worst urban district in the nation. They knew the human body is made up of many cells; he had never learned that.
School choice obviously did not, as DeVos claimed at CPAC that it should have done, “return power” to Ana Rivera or her son, who, at the time Zernike wrote, was struggling with D’s and no longer talked about being an engineer. Rather, what school choice did was empower that charter school to take Ana Rivera’s money—which was really the taxpayers’ money—and provide her son with teachers who obviously followed DeVos’ lead, choosing not to tell Rivera’s son, as Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire put it in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “‘what to do’ (here’s how to conduct an experiment), ‘what to say’ (here’s a suggestion for how to make a more persuasive argument) and ‘what to think’ (let’s examine that concept more critically…).” Or, to put it another way, teachers who, as McGuire also put it, seem to have “favor[ed]…ignorance [over] education.”
Betsy DeVos promotes a laissez-faire, caveat-emptor, market-driven model of education, which is why, despite its failures, she invests so much time and money promoting “school choice,” and it’s clear from her remarks at CPAC that she wants to bring that vision to higher education as well. “I took this job,” she said at that conference, still addressing herself to the college students in the audience, “because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.” Notice, though, that she did not name students as one of the recipients of this power. That’s because her model of education is less about empowering students to learn than enabling them (or their parents) to spend their money wherever the market can persuade them to spend it.
We already know that’s where the Trump administration’s higher education policy is headed. Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, will be heading Trump’s task force on higher education policy and one of his goals will be to “pare…back and give colleges…more leeway in governing their affairs,” particularly in areas like student recruitment. We already know the sort of disaster that kind leeway has caused in the for-profit college industry, but the problem is also deeper than that. To treat education like any other product sold in the marketplace is not only to misconstrue what education is; it is not only to misunderstand what teachers and educational administrators do; it is also to reduce our students to free-market consumers who have only themselves to blame if, caveat emptor, an educational purchase they make goes awry.
The narrowness of that perspective is almost certainly what led to the tacit racism of DeVos’ initial HBCU statement, and it is also the root of the anti-intellectualism that characterized DeVos’ CPAC remarks. Here at NCC, we’ve fought, and won, our own battles over similar issues. Those victories would not have been possible, however, if the values of academic freedom and shared governance were not enshrined in our contract as the foundation of the work we do here. We’ll be writing more about this over the coming months, as we gear up for contract negotiations.