By Ivory A. Toldson, nytimes.com
Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, deserved the hammering she received for her widely reviled comments characterizing historically Black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) as early examples of “school choice.” But when it comes to the fate of H.B.C.U.s under the Trump administration, her apparent misunderstanding of their history is a distraction.
The fate of these institutions in the coming years will hinge not on her words, but on her decisions about their funding.
In February, after only a few days on the job, Ms. DeVos made headlines for visiting Howard University, a historically Black college founded in 1867. Then, after a meeting with H.B.C.U. leaders Monday, she released a statement calling H.B.C.U.s the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” That description was widely criticized as a dishonest attempt to distance these institutions from the segregated past that necessitated them and to awkwardly reposition them as talking points for the school choice movement.
But her misguided remarks have diverted attention away from something more urgent: She now oversees the federal agency that is responsible for roughly three-fourths of the annual federal revenue to H.B.C.U.s. In ways that are much more consequential than any statement she could make, this power will allow her to determine how the schools fare under the Trump administration.
Tuesday, President Trump issued an executive order moving the White House Initiative on HBCUs (WHI-HBCUs) from the Department of Education to the Office of the White House. Some H.B.C.U. advocates supported this move because of their impression that it would strengthen the administrative authority of the initiative and elevate the stature of its executive director. However, moving the WHI-HBCUs from the Department of Education to the White House distances the initiative from the source of essential funding for H.B.C.U.s. That’s because the Education Department is responsible for the distribution of approximately $700 million annually in grants, contracts and appropriations to those schools. But when it comes to annual revenue to H.B.C.U.s, the Office of the President is directly responsible for zero dollars.
This arrangement leaves Ms. DeVos with significant power. H.B.C.U. advocates and defenders like me should focus less on dissecting her talking points and misstatements and more on seeking answers to specific questions about her attitudes toward the funding of historically black colleges in the present day.
First, what are Ms. DeVos’s plans related to Title III, the federal grant program within the Department of Education designed to build the capacity of H.B.C.U.s? President Obama’s budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which never passed, sought to maintain and strengthen these opportunities for H.B.C.U.s to build their capacity. It included a proposal for $85 million in mandatory funding to the schools, as well as $244.7 million in discretionary Title III funding. Will Ms. DeVos maintain or increase these levels of funding?