Betsy De Vos and HBCUs as pioneers of school...segregation

With good reason, folks all over the country raised a hullabaloo over Betsy De Vos’s latest preposterous utterance. Going beyond the free-lunch offensive, wading deeper than the claim that American universities brainwash students, now she steps deep into…history…to make new claims about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” says Betsy. “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.”

What a statement! She’s been buried under an avalanche of criticism for her ignorance about HBCUs. Speculation is flying across the web as to whether she is malicious and/or a liar. Maybe she’s confused? Drunk on her own rhetoric?

One can’t really mean a statement like that. Not now–when pretty much everyone knows that HCBUs were created because black folks were barred from universities. And that many of them were created by white folks to offer limited access to a liberal arts education or even solely vocational learning, understood by well-meaning whites as the appropriate way to educate blacks. Don’t forget,  these institutions were founded in the mid to late 19th century, meaning that in the 200 years prior, higher education was largely denied to blacks in the US.

But I don’t think Betsy De Vos was ignorant or lying, malicious or babbling when she made that improbable statement about HBCUs and school choice.

She showed us something. Came clean about something. Made very explicit something I’ve long suspected about school choice but never heard anyone say it outright like Betsy.

To get at that hidden little truism about school choice, let’s first look briefly at HCBUs.

HCBUs were born in a segregated world, where “separate but equal” made some kind of sense. They grew under Jim Crow and flourished in a world of redlined real estate and loan discrimination, a world where the GI Bill unevenly applied to black vets, a world of white flight and Willis Wagons. HCBUs, now longstanding higher ed institutions with distinguished histories, originated in one thing and one thing only: racial segregation in a world of white privilege, autonomy, and power.

So truly, the growth of HBCUs had nothing whatsoever to do with school choice as we typically think we understand it–the opportunity to choose from a wonderful array of choices. HBCUs had little to do with another rhetorical element you sometimes hear associated with school choice–civil rights. HBCUs were not the product of civil rights, but an end run around the centuries-long white withholding of black civil rights.

Maybe the problem with De Vos’s statement isn’t fundamentally that it’s wrong, which is factually obvious: HCBUs are not exemplars of what we think we know about school choice. Maybe, rather, it’s that we don’t actually understand what school choice really is. We think we do, but we don’t.

Not as well as Betsy does.

Maybe school choice isn’t about options and arrays and free markets after all. Maybe it isn’t really about civil rights.

Maybe, like Betsy suggests, school choice is instead about segregation. 

Because that’s the way it actually has worked out–wherever it’s been implemented. All over the world, and all over the US.

Two countries have made the policy national–Chile and Sweden. In this time the school systems of both nations have grown more demographically stratified than ever in the history of either country, while showing none of the vaunted increase in quality or success. Chile went all in with Milton Friedman, the ideological father of vouchers and choice, in 1980 and Sweden in 1992, and all they have to show for it are steep drops in test scores and severely increased segregation by “social class and immigration class and immigration status.”

And in the US? We have only a few cities and states that have really put all their eggs in the school choice basket–Ohio, MilwaukeeOakland, Detroit, New Orleans. But the results are the sameincreased segregation throughout entire school systems. Greater segregation in elementary schools than has been seen in decades. Study after study confirms this. School quality does not improve. The achievement gap is not closed. Poverty does not magically disappear. Test scores do not rise. Civil rights are not served.

School choice, the great “civil rights issue of our time,” is managing to resurrect the great educational burden of our nation–racial separation of our schools.

Maybe Betsy De Vos didn’t misspeak. Maybe she was telling us something about school choice that most people don’t realize–that it’s just another means to maintain racial segregation in our nation’s schools.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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