Florida A&M students sue state, alleging racially biased funding gap

Florida A&M students sue state, alleging racially biased funding gap

Black students at Florida Agricultural & Engineering University are suing the state for alleged racial discrimination, alleging that local political leaders intentionally denied the historically black college the same funding as the University of Florida, a predominantly white school.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in Florida federal court, also accuses state higher education officials of duplicating academic programs for which Florida A&M (FAMU) is known in an effort to wipe out enrollment from the school. The suit names six FAMU students as plaintiffs and the Florida system of higher education, including Chancellor Marshall Criser III, as defendants.

“Throughout its history and to this day, Florida has purposefully engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination, primarily through disparate funding, that has prevented HBCUs, including FAMU, from achieving parity with their traditionally white counterparts,” the complaint . claims.

Neither the Florida State University System nor Gov. Ron DeSandis’ office responded to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is notable because FAMU and Florida State are both land-grant universities, which under federal law should receive equal funding. But over the past 30 years, state leaders have created a $1.3 billion funding gap between UF and FAMU, the lawsuit alleges. Between 2018 and 2021, FAMU received $98.4 million in state aid, compared to $415.6 million for UF.

Underfunding has caused FAMU to fall behind in maintaining its facilities, such as school buildings and student housing, according to the lawsuit. A $111 million facility debt in 2020 forced the university to temporarily close the 60,000-square-foot recreation center until February of last year. Last month, the school also briefly closed one of its dormitories due to flood damage and pest issues.

“Our school has always gone a little bit further, but we shouldn’t have,” Britney Denton, a FAMU doctoral student and plaintiff in the case, said in a statement Thursday. “We are proud to be here and we want Florida to be proud to support us and other HBCUs alike.”

Historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, date back to the 1800s and have been underfunded for decades, according to higher education experts. Billions of dollars in state aid they say should have gone to those schools have been diverted by lawmakers for other purposes. A Forbes investigation found that FAMU has been underfunded by $1.9 billion since 1987, the second largest gap behind North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University at $2.8 billion.


Historically black colleges are fighting back after decades of underfunding

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HBCU leaders say the denial of state funding to their colleges is largely due to old-school racism. State lawmakers, who largely control higher education funding, have long viewed such institutions as inferior, HBCU officials told CBS MoneyWatch. That has limited schools from offering more competitive salaries for teachers and scholarships for top students, school officials said.

“This deliberate indifference to HBCUs is not unique to Florida, but FAMU is where we join the fight to make sure education is fair for all,” said one of the students’ attorneys, Josh Dubin.

Public HBCUs are funded by both the states and the federal government. Congress appropriates millions annually for each school, depending on a formula based on enrollment, academic achievement and other metrics, and the state where the school resides is supposed to match that funding amount dollar for dollar.

For example, if Alcorn State University received $50 million in federal aid, then Mississippi lawmakers are supposed to pay an additional $50 million for a total of $100 million to the school.

But HBCU presidents and education experts said the so-called $1-for-$1 match rarely happens in practice, pointing to a general refusal by state lawmakers over the years to match the federal investment.

FAMU’s lawsuit marks what could be the beginning of restoring millions of dollars lost to the Tallahassee school. Attorneys representing FAMU students said they are demanding the state begin providing equal university funding to UF within five years. HBCUs in Maryland and Tennessee are too pushing to recover millions of dollars in government aid never received.

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