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

Black students at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University are suing the state over alleged racial discrimination, claiming that local political leaders have deliberately denied the historically black college equal funding with the University of Florida, a predominantly White school.

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

FayeRachel Peterson, a graduate student in chemistry, said she was motivated to file the lawsuit after realizing early last month that she was paid really poorly as a research assistant at FAMU while her friend at Florida State University doesn't have to worry about working while studying for a master's degree. Peterson said she believes her graduate stipend is so low because FAMU isn't receiving the same amount of funding as the other Florida public universities. 

"Even if I can't get more funding, I would hope in the future that other students can have better opportunities," Peterson told CBS MoneyWatch on Friday. 

The State University System of Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis' office declined to comment on the case.

The lawsuit is noteworthy because FAMU and the U. of Florida are both land-grant universities, which means under federal law they should receive equal per-student funding. Over the past 30 years, however, state leaders have created a $1.3 billion funding gap between UF and FAMU, the lawsuit contends. Between 2018 and 2021, FAMU received $98.4 million in state aid, compared with $415.6 million for UF. 

Peterson and the other students are asking the Florida court to order state leaders to repay FAMU the state aid it should have received all those years and to begin providing the school the same amount of per-student funding as UF within the next five years, attorney Barbara Hart, who is also representing the students, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The underfunding has forced FAMU to fall behind on maintenance of its facilities, such as school buildings and student housing, according to the suit. A $111 million facilities debt in 2020 forced the university to temporarily shutter its 60,000-square-foot recreation center until February of last year. Last month, the school also briefly closed one of its dorms due to flood damage and pest issues.

"Our school has always made a little go a long way, but we shouldn't have to," Britney Denton, a FAMU doctoral student and plaintiff in the case, said in a statement Thursday. "We're proud to be here and we want Florida to be proud to support us and other HBCUs equally."

Historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, date back to the 1800s, and they have been underfunded for decades, according to higher education experts. Billions of dollars in state aid that 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 disparity behind North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University at $2.8 billion. 

Historically Black colleges fight back after decades of underfunding 07:32

HBCU leaders say the denial of state funding to their colleges largely comes down to old-school racism. State legislators, who largely control funding for higher education, have long viewed such institutions as inferior, HBCU officials told CBS MoneyWatch. That has constrained the schools in offering more competitive salaries for faculty and scholarships for top students, school officials said.

"This deliberate indifference toward HBCUs is not unique to Florida, but FAMU is where we're joining the fight to ensure the education is fair for everyone," one of the students' lawyers, Josh Dubin, said in a statement

Public HBCUs are funded by both states and the federal government. Congress sets aside millions annually for each school, depending on a formula that's based on enrollment, scholarly pursuits and other metrics and the state where the school resides is supposed to match that funding dollar-for-dollar. 

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

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

"Throughout its history and up to the present day, Florida has purposefully engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination, principally through disparate funding, that has prevented HBCUs, including FAMU, from achieving parity with their traditionally White institution counterparts," the complaint alleges. 

The FAMU lawsuit marks what could be the beginning of restoring millions of lost dollars to the Tallahassee school. Lawyers representing FAMU students said they demand the state begin giving the university equal funding to UF within five years. HBCUs in Maryland and Tennessee are also pushing to reclaim millions of dollars in state aid they never received. 

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