By the Editorial Board
March 1, 2017
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a positively Orwellian explanation Monday of why historically black colleges and universities were created in the United States.
Incredibly, she suggested that they were “real pioneers” in the school-choice movement and “started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education.”
|A gate to Howard University, in Washington.|
Credit: Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
The Education Department’s own website — on a page titled “Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Higher Education Desegregation” — offers a more accurate history. These colleges, it shows, were created, beginning in the 19th century, as a direct response to rigid racial segregation when the doors of white colleges were typically closed to African-Americans.
Rather than integrate colleges, the Southern and border states established parallel, Jim Crow systems in which black college students were typically confined to segregated campuses handicapped by meager budgets and inferior libraries and facilities. Litigation over the funding equity issue continues to this day.
Ms. DeVos’s insulting distortion of history, which she tried to pull back after furious criticism, grows out of her obsession with market-driven school policies, including the idea of a publicly funded voucher program that public school students could use to pay for private education.
But as Kevin Carey reported in The Times just last week, new research shows that voucher programs may actually harm many students by shunting them into low-quality private schools. Taken together, three of the largest voucher programs in the country, enrolling nearly 180,000 children, showed negative results.
A 2015 study of an Indiana program that served tens of thousands of students found that voucher students who transferred to private schools did significantly worse in mathematics — and showed no improvement in reading.
A study of a Louisiana voucher program last year serving predominantly black and low-income families found reading and math scores went down when children transferred to private schools. The performance decline was significant: Public elementary school children who started at the 50th percentile in math dropped to the 26th percentile within a year of transferring to a private school.
And a study of a large program in Ohio — conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute — found that students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse academically compared with their peers attending public school.
At the very least, these studies show that the private schools cannot be presumed superior to public schools. These dismal results also make clear that free-market mechanisms that work well in business can be damaging when applied to the lives of schoolchildren.
Ms. DeVos’s strange interpretation of this country’s racist history was probably meant to pave the way for market-driven education policies. Ignorant statements notwithstanding, those policies have proved to be failures.