Government

HBCU Leader Says DeVos's 'School Choice' Comment Is Worrying on Multiple Levels

February 28, 2017

During Monday's "listening session" with members of the Trump administration, Walter M. Kimbrough heard something that caught his attention. It was a comment by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and it sought to mesh her commitment to “school choice” and the founding mission of historically black colleges and universities.

Later that night, Mr. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, read a similar remark in a statement issued by Ms. DeVos. Specifically, the statement said historically black colleges and universities are “pioneers of school choice” — a remark that puzzled and outraged many observers. HBCUs were founded, mostly after the Civil War, to educate black Americans who were excluded from most higher-education institutions in the era of segregation, a fact that several observers quickly noted:

"Being in the room it didn't come across as ill spirited," Mr. Kimbrough said in an interview with The Chronicle on Tuesday morning, of the earlier remarks by Ms. DeVos. "I think she was honestly trying to find a way to connect her experience with HBCUs," he added, saying it was a poor analogy.

Ms. DeVos's statement came as many in the HBCU community were eagerly anticipating President Trump’s executive order on HBCUs, expected to be signed on Tuesday afternoon. Omarosa Manigault, a senior adviser to President Trump, is heading up the effort.

Previous reports have suggested that Tuesday's executive order will move the White House Initiative on HBCUs from the Education Department into the White House, but other details about the order have not yet surfaced.

More worrisome than the school-choice comment, for Mr. Kimbrough, was Ms. DeVos's assertion that a key priority for the Trump administration would be not to focus solely on funding, but on some form of “tangible, structural reforms."

Funding, however, is a large part of what many HBCU leaders say they need. "Part of my statement," Mr. Kimbrough said, referring to a piece he published on Medium, "is that this has to be a funding issue when we're talking about these historic levels of income and wealth inequality."

"How can you not talk about funding when we serve a population that is the highest percentage of Pell Grant recipients of any higher-education sector?" he asked.

Ms. DeVos is slated to give the keynote speech at Tuesday’s luncheon during a meeting between HBCU leaders and members of Congress. Mr. Kimbrough said that morning that he hoped Ms. DeVos could clean up and clarify her comments from Monday night.

Here's Ms. DeVos's full statement:

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.