Betsy DeVos, HBCUs and School Choice

The recent comments by the new Secretary of Education provide a clear — and disturbing — insight to how she views public higher education, and by extension, in my mind, how she’s primed to damage public primary and secondary Ed. Yesterday Madam Secretary commented that Historically Black Colleges and Universities were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” as part of a statement following #45’s meeting with the heads of many HBCUs. Of course her comments set off Black Twitter for a time yesterday as the hashtag #HBCUs was the most trending for a good part of the early day.

The problem with her comment is that it totally muddles the context of how and why HBCUs were devised in the first place — it tries to put a contemporaneous spin on their founding, as if their reason for being today is the same as the reasons for founding over a century ago. So with that, a little history on the creation of HBCUs. The first of the historically black colleges was Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1837, on a bequeath from a wealthy Quaker, who wanted to to prepare Africans in America as teachers. In fact, of the HBCUs that followed up until 1865 — with the founding of Bowie State University (originally the Baltimore “Normal” School, that is a school for the production of teachers) — all of the colleges that black students aspiring to higher educations could attend were created with the aid of the church (generally Methodists and Quakers) and were private institutions that were formed specifically for black students. In other words, the colleges of their day generally didn’t want Africans as students.

It wasn’t until 1866, with the founding of Lincoln University (the one in Jefferson City, Missouri) that a public university was founded for Black peoples in America. Even then, at the outset, Lincoln was founded with the donations of black members of the Union Army (in the 62nd Colored Infantry regiment) after the Civil War. It didn’t become a land-grant college, eligible for any sort of consistent, mandated state and federal aid under the Morrill Act, until 1890. (The University of Missouri-Columbia Gaines would not be integrated, except by force of court order until 1950 (!!), when the university was compelled to admit African Americans to courses that were not offered at Lincoln University).

Understanding the land-grant college system is also key to understanding the creation of public HBCUs. Congress had passed something called the Morrill Act in 1862. The Act granted federally-controlled land to the states for them to sell, in order to raise funds, so they could establish and endow public colleges that taught engineering, teacher science, and agricultural techniques among other things. This would establish almost all of the public flagship colleges in each state (think the University of Florida, University of Georgia, and so on). While some of these institutions in the North or West were open to blacks before the Civil War, in 17 states mostly in the South, there was no way an African could attend a state land-grant college. So, Congress passed the second Morrill Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, which required states to establish a separate land grant college for blacks if Africans were being excluded from the existing land grant college. Thus you have the state HBCUs.

The first of these schools founded with both state money and state support for the education of Black students (predating the second Morrill Act, and differentiated from Lincoln U., which had private, individual backing initially) was finally founded in 1874, with the predecessor to The Alabama State University, which became the first state-supported educational institution and Alabama’s first land-grant college for blacks,. (The University of Alabama, founded in 1820, wouldn’t admit Blacks until 1956 — Nineteen Fifty-Six — while it had admitted women beginning with the 1892 school year.)

And that is the crux of the argument: The founding of HBCUs was hardly the result of a desire for school choice. They were the last great gasp of the white establishment’s efforts to deny Africans educational opportunity in this country.

Regardless the federal support, DeVos fails to acknowledge that HBCUs were largely founded by white segregationists who didn’t want black students at their larger, better funded land-grant universities. It wasn’t about alternatives it was about only options.

Worse, the parallels between that and her “school choice” plans and essentially plans to defund public education are manifest.

How, you might ask.

I call it bifurcating the system. This is Facebook so I’ll try to keep it simple. You set up an “oppositional” system where some schools will have funds cannibalized to share with another set of already better-funded schools. The better funded group will also contain the better students (those with parents of greater financial opportunity, in general). As you starve the first group (the group forced to share their already smaller slice of the pie), students leave that system and migrate their talent and dollars to, and thereby enriching, the already superior-funded, superior-resourced group. The students left behind (either those who cannot meet the financial or academic standards of the successful schools) attend the poorer-performing and less-well funded schools. Meanwhile the high-performing schools eventually run up against their own structural limits, leaving them either resource-constrained — or forced to stop the inflow of students, which manifest itself as becoming even more selective. This trickles down to the underfunded group, who themselves have to make choices on who to serve. So they too tighten their standards, “forcing out” those students who they deem to be the least capable. That group of students is left with nothing, essentially.

So you end up with a system of superiors, and marginals, and a more significant group who fit into neither category, and are completely unserved, their needs unmet.

So how does this equate to DeVos’ statement? Well, it’s no secret that many HBCUs are in dire straits financially. Many, including several founded as private, have been fully-absorbed into state school systems, and of them a number are, if not systematically, lets say consistently, starved of the financial resources they need to survive. And as a result, they are seen by some as providing lesser opportunity and have seen an net-outflow of black students. (In fact, one “HBCU”, Bluefield State University in West Virginia is now majority white, as black students were offered better opportunity at other colleges and whites using GI Bill money, started attending. It hasn’t been majority black since 1968.) Eventually, this cannibalization of funds will diminish the whole. (By and large, on the state level, thats what’s happened to HBCUs). And eventually, the group cannibalized, will either crumble itself or become less-available to the least ready students, leaving them out in the cold, so to speak. You already see it happening as the percentage of degrees conferred at HBCUs only represent about 20% or so of the total received by Black students, and total enrollment by black students in HBCUs is only around 10% or so today.

By setting up oppositional systems, the direct result of bifurcating the public post-secondary system of education in this country is that it will lead to fewer opportunities as whole for underserved populations. There will always be standout schools (in this case, the Tougaloos, Howards, Spellmans and Morehouses for example), but there will also be a greater number of strugglers. The better students will continue to go to the great schools (which themselves will become strained without greater resources above what they get from the influx of new students dollars) while everyone else will suffer from a lack of opportunities at the schools that are left.

While those graduates produced by HBCUs are some of the most productive in America, the schools themselves are the issue. Bifurcating the educational system was a bad idea in the 1800s and it’s a bad idea today. Especially in public education. It creates inherently unequal opportunities.

This is not just about HBCUs. Don’t be mistaken. This is very much about setting policy on the primary level as well. Position school choice as a the savior, but don’t mention that the systems provided are already inherently unequal. Starve the one that serves the most underserved populations. Enrich the one that already is well positioned. Do that generationally, and the poorer “public” system, and it’s “burden” on the greater society — code for the money that you spend on it — go away. That’s the goal. Dismantle. Destroy. Displace.

Chess. Not checkers, y’all.

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