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The Only Choice for Public Education and HBCUs is to Fund Them

Sekile Nzinga-Johnson
March 7, 2017
Last week, Betsy Devos, Secretary of Education, drew a faulty and ahistorical connection by positioning historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as the "real pioneers when it comes to school choice".  Devos’ school choice agenda is not a viable choice for most Americans nor were HBCUs founded as an educational choice for Blacks who were systematically denied access to American colleges and universities. They each are representative of unjust policy agendas that disinvest from communities and intensify inequity.  Because I value education, I think the Secretary of Education might benefit from learning from a case study on the invaluable impact that a  public school education and a HBCU education has on the lives of many Americans, including my own.  

I attended public elementary, middle, and high schools in Providence, Rhode Island with students from poor, working, and middle class families.  My classmates were from a multitude of racial and ethnic backgrounds and many were immigrants and refugees. Attending well-funded public schools meant I did not have to pay for my books, school supplies, meals, field trips, health screenings, or transportation. My elementary school provided me with a viola for free when I began taking music lessons and my middle school provided me access to school-based performing arts programs. I also had access to school libraries and school-based nurses.  The allocation of state and federal funds to Providence public schools served as protective factors against the economic and racial inequity that I encountered daily as a Black working class student and contributed in innumerable ways to my growth and development. 

In 1989 I was accepted into Morgan State University, a historically Black University in Baltimore, Maryland. Morgan was founded in 1867 to provide pastoral education to Black men.  In 1939, under mounting pressure for not providing quality education to its Black population, the state of Maryland purchased the college.  Despite Morgan being chartered as a public state university, like other HBCUs, it has never received funding on par with white public colleges and universities.

I recall during my freshman year, my fellow Morganites and I staged sit-ins, blocked entrances to academic buildings, and marched at the state capital in Annapolis to demand equitable educational funding for our beloved university.  We were met by Maryland state police in riot gear with K-9 dogs.  Twenty-four years later, Morgan continues to confront underfunding at the state and federal level but it also continues to flourish as a world-class educational and research institution that I am proud to call my alma mater. 

Did I “choose” to go to an HBCU? Yes and No.

No, because my college “choices”—even after de-segregation—were still structurally constrained.  Blacks in the U.S. continue to be disproportionately poor and working class and many do not have the financial resources. The majority of HBCUs have historically been publicly funded and are relatively more affordable. My family’s working class status meant that I had to “choose” a university that was I could afford with the support from a grant from Road Island for college bound students, the Pell grant, work study, and federally subsidized student loans. 

Also, yes, my prior experiences with interpersonal and institutionalized racism within educational systems meant that I “chose” a college that affirmed my existence and had faith in my intellectual capabilities.

It’s important to note that my forced choice to attend an HBCU did not result in an inferior college education. To the contrary, Morgan State University’s classrooms and labs were filled with aspiring Black students just like me who deserved access to a quality college education. We were taught by brilliant and dedicated professors who were often overworked, underpaid, and who taught lessons and conducted research with fewer resources than professors teaching at predominantly white public institutions in Maryland. Yet, they gave us the critical analysis and foundation we would need to confront injustice and inequity in our lives, our careers, our communities, and our country. 

Charles L. Betsey, Economics professor at Howard University  and editor of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, notes that the 105 HBCUs still in operation account for three percent of the nation's educational institutions, but they graduate almost one-quarter of African-Americans receiving college degrees. Morgan State University’s professors’ commitment to my education contributed to me receiving a full fellowship to attend Ohio State University for my master’s degree and later, a full fellowship to attend University of Maryland-College Park for my doctorate. Eventually I became a social work and women’s studies professor, modeling my career as a social justice oriented educator and engaged scholar after my former professors at Morgan State University.  

I am sharing my personal educational journey to demonstrate what is possible when we invest in K-12 public education and to help others understand the indispensable role that HBCUs continue to play in educating  Black college students.  I realize I am but one example, but Betsy Devos, a major proponent of privatized education, is deeply misguided both in her understanding of what students need and which investments we should be making as a country.