Betsy DeVos will speak at graduation of historically black university in Florida

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PHOTO BY MONIVETTE CORDEIRO
  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who once said that historically black colleges and universities founded during racial segregation were the "real pioneers" of "school choice," will be speaking at the graduation ceremony for Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

DeVos will be a speaker at the spring commencement for the private historically black college on May 10, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As one of the most controversial figures of the Trump administration, the Michigan billionaire has been a proponent of charter schools, vouchers and other alternatives to the public education system. In March, DeVos and President Donald Trump were booed while they visited a private school in Orlando whose students get tuition assistance from the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program. Trump's education budget has proposed eliminating $9 billion from the Education Department, but does add more than $1 billion in funding toward "school choice" programs.

DeVos called HBCUs school choice pioneers after meeting with college officials in February shortly after she was appointed. In a statement, DeVos said HBCUs started because "there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education."

"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 in a statement. "HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. 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."

Critics said DeVos failed to mention historically black schools were started because black students had no other options – African Americans were barred from education in some parts of the country before the Civil War and later, Jim Crow laws prevented them from attending schools with white students.

DeVos later tried to walk back her comments and called Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman, a leader who inspired her.

Some alumni from Bethune-Cookman have started a petition to stop DeVos from speaking at the graduation. The online petition currently has 2,788 signatures.

"Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand that HBCUs were created because African Americans were excluded from mainstream institutions," the petition says. "Secretary DeVos has no understanding of the importance, contributions, and significance of HBCUs. Having DeVos speak at the commencement ceremony is an insult to the BCU graduating class, students, alumni, family, friends, and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy."

Bethune-Cookman University has issued a statement on having DeVos as a speaker, the Chronicle reports.

"Much like Dr. Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, Secretary DeVos deems the importance of opportunity and hope for students to receive an exceptional education experience," the statement says. "Her mission to empower parents and students resonates with the history and legacy of Dr. Bethune."

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