Florida A&M students are suing the state, accusing it of decades of underfunding

The state of Florida has deliberately and systematically maintained a racially segregated structure of higher education by allocating more money to predominantly white universities than to historically black institutions, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of six Florida A&M University students.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed in federal court against the state of Florida, the Florida State University System Board of Governors and the system’s chancellor, Marshall M. Criser III. The suit calls for Florida to “commit to full parity in support for HBCUs and traditionally white institutions within five years.”

With over 9,000 students, Florida A&M is one of the nation’s largest HBCUs.

The Financial Aid Office announced that it had run out of state funding and had nothing left to give out.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of litigation against state funding practices that have shortchanged HBCUs by billions of dollars. Many involve differential treatment of land-grant universities. The Morrill Act of 1862 established a system whereby the federal government would provide grants to universities devoted to agriculture, science, engineering, and related disciplines, if the amount was supplemented by non-federal funds. It usually comes from the state. But over the years, predominantly white universities have been more likely than historically black institutions to receive the share of public funding to which they are entitled.

Similar discrepancies are evident, the suit says, in the amount of money the state gives per student to Florida’s two land-grant colleges. Between 1987 and 2020, the difference was $1.3 billion, the complaint says. .

A spokeswoman for the Florida State University System said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The complaint also points to several areas where Florida A&M receives less public funding than Florida State University, also a predominantly white institution in Tallahassee.

Britney Denton.

Courtesy of Britney Denton

Pharmacy student Britney Denton is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Florida system.

One of the plaintiffs is Britney Denton, a first-year doctoral student in pharmacy at Florida A&M. He said in an interview that he thinks it’s unfair that two institutions that are “literally on opposite sides of the tracks” have such disparate resources. When she tried to get financial aid over the summer to enroll this fall, she said, “The financial aid office said the state funding is over and they don’t have anything to give out.” He took out loans and dipped into savings, steps he doesn’t think he’d have to take at a better-funded university.

The lawsuit accuses the state and its university system of unnecessarily duplicating Florida A&M’s programs, making it difficult for the historically black university to attract students and faculty. That was the issue in a successful lawsuit against the state of Maryland, which last year agreed to provide $577 million in additional funding over 10 years to the state’s four HBCUs.

In 1998, Florida and the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights entered into a five-year partnership to improve access to all levels of education for minority students. The lawsuit alleges that the state failed to honor that agreement.

Raymond C. Pierce, president of the Southern Education Foundation, was working in the Office of Civil Rights when the agreement was signed. He said Thursday that while he had not yet read Florida’s complaint, he found such challenges “unfortunate and sad” for him. Pierce, a longtime civil rights attorney who has been key in many state funding challenges for HBCUs, said he oversaw the drafting of a partnership agreement aimed at addressing decades of segregation and discrimination that Florida has been accused of. in violation.

“State budgets are getting tight — I understand that, and you have competing interests,” Pierce said. But too often, he added, the interests of predominantly white universities win out. “The idea that black students don’t deserve or need the educational services that other students need,” he said, “is a racist notion that hasn’t gone away.”

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