What Betsy DeVos needs to know about diversity in schools

Diversity at every educational level benefits everyone involved. These programs need to be funded to work

By D. Watkins
April 12, 2017 2:58AM (UTC)
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Betsy DeVos (Getty/Mike Theiler/AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Photo montage by Salon)

When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the Brookings Institution about public school choice late last month, she claimed that racial and socioeconomic diversity "is a real benefit in schools." But just like many of her peers in the Trump administration, DeVos' words and actions don't seem to match up. Donald Trump's education department recently decided to trash one of Obama's key educational grant programs, Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities. This grant program supports local educational agencies and their communities' efforts to implement strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools, and to improve student achievement in low-performing schools.

I’m not surprised at Trump's attempt to un-Obama everything the Democrats and a few smart Republicans accomplished over the last eight years, because the Trump administration is full of disconnected rich people who evidently don’t understand why diversity makes us all better.


I didn’t benefit from Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities personally, but grants from federal government programs like it gave me the opportunity to attend Johns Hopkins University. And I'm not alone. This is how it works: A person from a low-income family like mine dreams of success, and in this country we are sold the idea that success is directly connected to higher education, which is mostly true. So when you aren’t lucky enough to be born into wealth like Betsy and Donald, you fight your way through sometimes grossly under-funded public schools, living within a culture of people who have been slighted by the education system, often in the worst circumstances under which to learn. You apply to any and every grant and loan that may afford you an opportunity to keep your education going.

I was awarded some grants and scholarships that helped pay my tuition at Johns Hopkins University. I studied pedagogy at the highest level, and I took those learned skills and brought them back to my community in an effort to create more young scholars. Many of those young people will be able to avoid the perils of the streets because success through education is now an option for them. I’m a real example, not just a talking point in a clichéd stump speech. I'm also a professor at JHU now, and I get to use those same skills to teach privileged students about the people from my neighborhood, who they are often taught to avoid. See, everybody learns, and everybody wins.

Programs like Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities aren’t a waste of tax dollars, as a representative of the Department of Education has claimed. They plant the seeds that grow into opportunity for everybody. Those white students I met at Hopkins now have an expanded perspective of the city and their country because of me, just as I do because of the things I learned about their world inside the classroom. It's a clear example of diversity at its best. This is how we grow; understanding each other is the only way to make America truly great.


DeVos and the rest of the Trump administration need to learn that it’s cheaper to educate and provide opportunity­­ to young people than to deal with the consequences of deciding not to. Their bad decisions are doing nothing but mapping out a clear path from underfunded schools to our prison system. Please stop canceling programs that work.

D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Betsy Devos Education Higher Education Racial Diversity Schools Socioeconomic Diversitys