Federal lawsuit alleges underfunding of Georgia’s three public HBCUs

Plaintiff Martrice Herrington listens to state representatives, legal advocates, and lawyers speak on the steps of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, announcing the federal lawsuit against the Georgia Board of Regents on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Plaintiff Martrice Herrington listens to state representatives, legal advocates, and lawyers speak on the steps of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, announcing the federal lawsuit against the Georgia Board of Regents on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Georgia Board of Regents alleges the state has failed to equitably fund its three public historically Black universities.

The lawsuit asks the state to remedy “unequal treatment of” Albany State, Fort Valley State and Savannah State universities, according to a copy provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Carlos Moore, a Mississippi attorney with the Cochran Firm.

The suit alleges the board diverted resources away from HBCUs to strengthen academic programs at majority-white schools. It also alleges that buildings at the state’s three HBCUs “are inferior” and that those schools rely on state funding more than non-HBCUs. The lawsuit also says there are no graduates of the three HBCUs who serve on the board.

Moore joined several Black Democratic state lawmakers outside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in Atlanta on Tuesday to announce the lawsuit.

“There should not be two systems of education in Georgia,” he said. Moore added: “In 2023, we’re still fighting for something as simple as equity, justice, equality.”

Other defendants named in the suit include the state of Georgia, University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue, the 19 individual members of the Board of Regents and state school Superintendent Richard Woods.

A spokeswoman for the University System of Georgia said the agency hadn’t been served and did not comment further. A representative for Gov. Brian Kemp referred comment to the University System. A Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman said they haven’t seen the complaint yet and said it’s unclear why Woods is named since the department has no oversight over higher education.

Last month, federal officials told Georgia and 15 other states that they had underfunded their land-grant historically Black colleges and universities by more than $12 billion in recent decades compared to non-HBCU land-grant peers. The review looked at per-student funding for Fort Valley State, Georgia’s lone historically Black land-grant school, and the University of Georgia, the state’s original land-grant school which didn’t admit Black students until 1961.

Fort Valley State would have received an additional $603 million from the state over the last 30 years if its per-student funding was equal to that of UGA, said the letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack.

Fort Valley State “would be much stronger and better positioned to serve its students, your state, and the nation if made whole with respect to this funding gap,” they wrote. Cardona and Vilsack said the state should make a “substantial” allocation toward the deficit while also committing to money in future state budgets “to bring parity to funding levels.”

The University System previously said it’s working to collect data and planned to respond to the federal letter.

Atlanta attorney John Moore, who’s also working on the case, said they expect to determine the amount of alleged underfunding for Albany State and Savannah State through the course of the lawsuit.

State Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, said Georgia has billions of dollars in surplus that “can be used to rectify these disparities.”

“It is a chance to right historical wrongs and ensure that every student in Georgia has an equal shot at success,” she said.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of three Black plaintiffs, who are alumni of the three HBCUs. The lead plaintiff, Martrice Herrington, of Augusta, graduated from Fort Valley State earlier this year with a biology degree. Herrington said she loved her experience at the university, but the buildings were old and the elevators frequently broken.

She said it’s important for her to join a lawsuit that could help future students.

“It means a lot. It could help them, help them financially, help them go to a better, beautiful school than it is now, help them grow as a person, help them get a better experience in college,” she said. “Sometimes you have to speak up for what you want.”

Each year, the governor proposes an annual budget for the University System. This year, the University System’s total state appropriation is about $3.1 billion, most of which stems from a formula based largely on student enrollment. State lawmakers approve how much state funding the University System receives, and then the University System allocates the money to its schools. Last fall Albany State had 6,358 students, Fort Valley State had 2,609 students and Savannah State had 2,962 students.

Although Georgia has three public HBCUs, the federal review compared funding only for land-grant universities. Such schools, which started out teaching agriculture and other careers, were established under an 1862 law that gave federal land to states.

An 1890 law required states to either end racial discrimination at their land-grant schools or create another land-grant school for Black students. States “were required to provide an equitable distribution” of funds between the two schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.


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