Feds’ Letter Argued in FAMU Lawsuit

TALLAHASSEE — Attorneys for Florida A&M University students are trying to use a letter from the Biden administration to bolster a potential class-action lawsuit alleging the historically Black school has been short-changed in state funding.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Sept. 18 sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis citing “longstanding and ongoing underinvestment” in Florida A&M when compared to the University of Florida. The comparison centered on Florida A&M and the University of Florida being the state’s two land-grant universities.

“Unequitable funding of (Florida A&M) has caused a severe financial gap, in the last 30 years alone, an additional $1,973,081,216 would have been available for the university,” the letter said. “These funds could have supported infrastructure and student services and would have better positioned the university to compete for research grants.”

Attorneys for the students in the federal lawsuit last week filed what is known as a notice of “supplemental authority” to try to use the Biden administration letter to help their case.

In part, the attorneys wrote that the “data presented by the (U.S.) Department of Education and the (U.S.) Department of Agriculture, including that FAMU is ‘owed’ state land-grant funding in the amount of $1,973,081,216, is wholly consistent with plaintiffs’ allegations related to persistent; material; long term underfunding of FAMU.”

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But lawyers for the state quickly filed a response disputing that the letter aids the plaintiffs and pointing to a key issue in the case of proving “de jure segregation,” which is segregation sanctioned by law.

“None of those arguments make up for the deficiencies in plaintiffs’ (legal) pleadings,” lawyers in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office wrote. “The letter does not evidence intentional discrimination or that any difference in funding is tied to de jure segregation.”

Attorneys for six Florida A&M students filed the lawsuit last year and a revised version July 3. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in June dismissed the case but allowed the plaintiffs to come back with a revised version to try to address his concerns.

In the revised version, the plaintiffs contend that state practices involving Florida A&M violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and what is known as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Along with underfunding, the lawsuit raises issues such as a lack of “high-demand” academic programs at Florida A&M. It contends that Florida A&M needs to have high-demand, unique academic programs to help draw a wide range of students. As an example, it points to a decision in the 1980s that created a joint engineering program for Florida A&M and nearby Florida State University, rather than having the program only at Florida A&M.

But the state in August filed a motion asking Hinkle to also dismiss the revised lawsuit and disputed that issues raised by the plaintiffs are rooted in segregation.

“While plaintiffs allege that there is unnecessary program duplication between FAMU and geographically proximate FSU and with traditionally white institutions throughout the state, they failed to allege facts that plausibly tie any program duplication to de jure segregation,” the motion said.

Cardona and Vilsack last month sent letters to 16 governors, including DeSantis, about disparities in funding that they said have affected historically Black land-grant colleges and universities. Laws in 1862 and 1890 created the land-grant system to provide federal support to states for colleges and universities.

The revised version of the Florida A&M lawsuit names as defendants state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. and members of the state university system’s Board of Governors. Hinkle has not scheduled a hearing on the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

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