Rev. Al Sharpton tore into President Donald Trump’s secretary of the Department of Education last night over her claims that historically black colleges and universities were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”—a statement that seemed to equate the institutions’ roots as refuges from discrimination with her own mission of promoting charter schools and vouchers for private education.
Speaking at the New School for Social Research on 14th Street, Sharpton taunted DeVos over the comment, which she made Monday night shortly meeting with the heads of a number of HBCUs in Washington. The controversial civil rights leader made glancing reference to the billionaire heiress’s lack of background in public education, and asserted her comment was an insult to the legacy of leaders who fought to grant African-Americans access to higher learning.
“Now, I don’t know where she studied. I suspect it was not at the New School,” he said, to chuckles from the audience. “Historic black colleges were founded because blacks had no choice. And to pervert a reaction to segregation and try and distort it into some endorsement of right-wing educational policy is to pour salt in the wound of those of us that know the history of what’s going on.”
DeVos, a longtime donor and advocate for charter schools and public subsidies for private schools, made the remarks amid an apparent campaign of outreach to HBCUs on the part of the Republican administration.
“They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality,” she said in a public statement. “Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
She appeared to back away from the comments following intense backlash on social media and criticism from leaders of Congress. Trump himself met with HBCU leaders at the White House yesterday to recognize their work, and to sign an executive order reassigning the responsibility of overseeing and promoting the schools from the Department of Education to the White House itself.
Yet even that move provoked outrage from certain corners, as a photo of the president standing alongside the college leaders showed advisor Kellyanne Conway casually sitting on a sofa with her shoes off. This, too, provided fodder for Sharpton in his address last night.
“Those that formed the historic black colleges, you must remember were one generation away from it being against the law for blacks to be able even to read and write. And whites would be prosecuted or worse if they were caught teaching blacks how to read and write,” he said. “But today she says ‘they pioneered school choice,’ and had black presidents of historic black colleges standing around the Oval Office, saluting Donald Trump, while Kellyanne was on the couch all cuddled up, tweeting and carrying on.”
DeVos’s confirmation was among the closest in history, with the Senate splitting 50-50 and Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote.
After his speech, Sharpton sat down for a discussion with New School Professor Maya Wiley—former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio—in which he called for an “intersectional movement” of all minorities against the Trump administration.