This week, the pot boiled over when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University. I understand that these are volatile times, but let's not allow disagreement to blind us from rare opportunities to expand educational opportunities and access for everyone.
Let us reason together. I say this as someone who has spent a lifetime supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, and fighting for civil rights. I have served on boards of trustees of three of Florida's four HBCUs. I did not support the president in the 2016 election. Nevertheless, let me be very clear: African-Americans are taxpayers and we deserve our fair share of programs and initiatives funded through taxpayer dollars.
Let us reason together. Our black children are in crisis. Three generations after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed separate and unequal schools, black students remain overrepresented in special education classes, underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes, and far more likely to be suspended than white students for similar infractions. Even in Florida, where black students have made laudable academic gains over the past 20 years, fewer than 1 in 3 can pass the basic reading tests required for graduation.
I was cautiously encouraged when President Donald Trump invited presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the White House. This has to be more than a photo-op. It must be a bringing together of real and tangible resources to help our HBCUs not only survive, but abundantly thrive.
Let us reason together. We must use this increased access to educate the president on all issues facing black students in higher education, including the pressing need for additional federal funding for HBCUs. We need significant programs and policies to ensure the future of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs need strong bipartisan support if we are going to meet the pressing educational needs of our people in the 21st century.
The same is increasingly true for programs that expand options in K-12. Parents of color are the strongest supporters of these programs, and their elected leaders are taking note. Two of Florida's newest Democratic congressmen — one black, one Hispanic — are school choice supporters. Meanwhile, half the Democrats in the Florida Legislature just voted to increase the value of one school choice scholarship and expand eligibility for another. Likewise, we must continue building bridges for programs that expand opportunities in preschool and K-12.
Let us reason together. Like it or not, Betsy DeVos was a pioneer in the school choice movement. Before becoming secretary, she fought to empower low-income parents to choose the best schools for their children. That included unyielding support for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves nearly 100,000 low-income students, including 30,000 black students. During her speech at Bethune-Cookman, DeVos attempted to open the door to dialogue. "Let's choose to hear each other out," she said. Her noted philanthropy and assessment of this country's educational landscape must include an open dialogue, recognition and funding for all students and families.
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Let us reason together. I firmly believe that the powerful legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune must undergird and fully permeate our discourse going forward. We celebrate her extraordinary life and the lives of future generations through being open-minded, collaborative, cooperative and respectful.
The Rev. R.B. Holmes is pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, and is president of the National Save the Family, Now, Movement Inc. and founder and chancellor of the Bethel Christian Academy (1992 to present). He was a leader in the Save Our Scholarships Coalition that helped defeat the lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.