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Betsy DeVos' 'School Choice' Controversy; Historically Black Colleges And More

President Donald Trump signed an executive order pertaining to historically black colleges and universities in the Oval Office.
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President Donald Trump signed an executive order pertaining to historically black colleges and universities in the Oval Office.

It was another big week for national education news. Here's our take on the top stories of the week.

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump meet with HBCU leaders

The Education Secretary seems to be racking up controversies at the rate of about one per week.

This week, it was for remarks she made Monday on the occasion of a "listening session" with presidents of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. She tied them to her favorite cause: school choice.

"HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice," she said in a statement after the meeting. "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."

The comments drew immediate and sharp criticism from those who pointed out that HBCUs were created in response to widespread racial segregation. They weren't just another choice, critics pointed out, they were often the only educational avenue for black students.

When DeVos addressed HBCU leaders directly the next day, she struck a different tone, saying: "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."

That listening session, meanwhile? It was cut short in favor of an Oval Office meet-and-greet between the college leaders and the president, as one of the invited guests, Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, wrote on Medium:

"There was very little listening to HBCU presidents today — we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today."

(That meeting should have been a routine photo op, but it happened to feature White House aide Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a couch, a pose that some saw as too casual.)

Kimbrough told NPR's Ari Shapirolater that day that he's "waiting for the budget," and specifically funding for Pell Grants for low-income students, before he decides whether Trump's and DeVos' interest in HBCUs is genuine.

Meanwhile on HBCU campuses ...

At Howard University in Washington, D.C., graffiti was found throughout campusdenouncing the Trump meeting, with phrases like "Welcome to Trump plantation," and "Wayne Frederick [the university president] doesn't care about black people."

Trump hints at his school choice plans

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress. On education, he returned to a line he'd used on the campaign trail: "Education is the civil rights issue of our time."

He continued, "I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them."

Trump also hinted at a way to pay for this.

The President introduced a guest to his audience that night: Denisha Merriweather. While living in Florida, Merriweather struggled in her public elementary school, failing third grade twice. Ultimately, her family took advantage of what's known as a tax-credit scholarship to pay for her to attend a private school.

Tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to receive a tax credit for donating to a third-party nonprofit. The nonprofit then distributes scholarships to qualified students. Most state constitutions prohibit the use of public money for religious institutions. Tax-credit scholarships offer state governments a way of funding students to attend religious schools.

According to the advocacy group EdChoice, 17 states currently offer tax-credit scholarships. Florida's is the largest, serving 98,000 students. Seventy percent attend religious schools.

Without tinkering with the big federal education law, Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress could conceivably lean into the tax-credit idea, using the federal tax code to make it easier for students to leave the public school system.

Trump made the first school visit of his presidency on Friday, with DeVos in tow. Their destination? A religious school, St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla where many students accept the tax credit scholarship.

Legal action on transgender student rights

This week, a long list of organizations filed "friend of the court" briefs in support of Gavin Grimm. He's the transgender student in Virginia whose case is before the Supreme Court.

Filers included school administrators from 31 states and the District of Columbia.

The Gloucester, Va., school board, the defendant in the case, has asked for arguments to be postponed. This might give the Senate time to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in favor of three transgender high school students, granting them access to the restrooms of their choice.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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