Why Betsy DeVos’s comments about historically black colleges have ignited a firestorm — and what she isn’t saying

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has launched yet another firestorm — on the eve of President Trump’s first address to Congress, when he is expected to offer more details about his education vision.

On Monday, DeVos called historically black colleges and universities “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” in a statement that was widely criticized for ignoring America’s history of segregation. The schools were in fact created because almost all American universities did not allow black people to enroll at the time.

“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,” DeVos said of the schools.

The comments launched a brouhaha that could easily eclipse DeVos’s early troubles — her apparent lack of knowledge during her confirmation hearing and her comments criticizing teachers at the first school she visited.

this is an actual serious question. Does Betsy DeVos know that Jim Crow happened? — Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths) February 28, 2017

DeVos tried to sidestep the criticism with her remarks on Tuesday to lawmakers and leaders of some of those schools. “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,” she said. “HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many.”

But she stuck to making a school choice argument — and said little about how she would improve the schools that most of America’s black students attend, which are public. Here’s what she said, according to her prepared remarks:

The inequities in our education system are, to me, among the most glaring problems we as a nation must solve. As you know, education inequality disproportionately harms minority students. Just over half of African-American high school students have access to the full range of high-level math and science courses that are gateways to college. This reality is troubling, and it is wholly unacceptable. But it’s also what motivates us, and it is part of the reason the President intends to deliver on his promise to help those who have long been forgotten by offering more opportunity to low-income families whose children deserve access to a high-quality education.

Then she recognized Denisha Merriweather, a student who benefitted from a school-choice program in Florida that allowed her to attend a small, Christian private school and who now is an advocate for Florida’s school voucher program. She supported DeVos during the confirmation process and will attend Trump’s speech to Congress Tuesday night.

“This is a model we must follow – to provide every child an opportunity to attend a quality school,” DeVos said. “We need more good schools. We need more good teachers. And no child should be denied the opportunity to enter a great school.”