State seeks to end FAMU discrimination case

Published: May. 31, 2023 at 10:05 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A federal judge will hear arguments Thursday in an attempt by the state to scuttle a potential class-action lawsuit that alleges discrimination against Florida A&M University in funding and programs.

Attorneys for six FAMU students filed the lawsuit in September in federal court in Tallahassee and are seeking an injunction against state practices that they say violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and a federal anti-discrimination law known as Title VI. Florida A&M is the state’s only historically Black public university.

“Throughout its history and up to the present, Florida has intentionally and consistently engaged in racial discrimination by maintaining a dual and unequal system of higher education, including by providing disparate funding and duplicating non-core FAMU programs, that has and continues to perpetuate de jure segregation in Florida’s higher education system and has prevented FAMU from achieving parity with Florida’s public traditionally white institutions,” said a revised version of the lawsuit filed in January.

But attorneys for the state will argue during Thursday’s hearing that U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle should dismiss the case, in part contending that the disputed policies are not “traceable” to de jure segregation — segregation sanctioned by law.

“The challenged policy or practice must not only be traceable to de jure segregation, it must also have continuing segregative effects,” attorneys for the state wrote in a February motion to dismiss the case. “Here, plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged that the challenged policies are traceable to de jure segregation or that they have segregative effects.”

The lawsuit, filed by the national law firm Grant & Eisenhofer and Miami civil-rights attorney Josh Dubin, raises a series of issues that it contends shows discrimination against FAMU. It names as defendants the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state university system’s Board of Governors, university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, the State Board of Education and state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.

As an example of the issues, it points to duplication of programs with nearby Florida State University and an alleged failure to have “unique” non-core programs at FAMU. Arguments involve such things as an engineering program that is shared by FAMU and Florida State.

“Unnecessary academic program duplication is harmful not only because it perpetuates a dual system but also because the greater the duplication the less likely that non-core quality programs can be adequately supported since resources are spread out over more programs,” the lawsuit said.

But the state’s motion to dismiss the case said allegations about programs such as the joint engineering school, which was created in 1982, “fall well short of establishing a policy traceable to de jure segregation.”

“In any event, the joint college is not even an example of program duplication that attempts to perpetuate segregation; it is the antithesis of a segregative program,” the state’s motion said. “Students in the joint college enroll at either FAMU or FSU but attend engineering courses together in a shared building. Far from perpetuating the practice of ‘separate but equal,’ the joint college aims to join students of FAMU and FSU together under one roof.”

As another example of issues in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs contend that a state system of performance-based funding “severely disadvantages FAMU.” The lawsuit said the system, which awards money to universities based on various measurements, doesn’t take into account factors such as the socioeconomic backgrounds of students served by schools.

“The metrics used to determine the funding awarded to Florida’s public universities favor students who have better access to resources and support, resources which help ensure academic success at the post-secondary education level,” the lawsuit said. “This includes, by way of example college preparatory coursework and standardized testing support, allowing those students to more likely achieve higher testing scores, complete their first year of university, and ultimately graduate, among other things. Underrepresented minority students and socioeconomically challenged students are often the first generation of college student in their family, may have social or economic barriers, may work while pursuing their course of study, and have less access to resources and support.”

But in the motion to dismiss the case, lawyers in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office wrote that the performance-based funding system “uses wholly neutral benchmarks.”

“These benchmarks track PBFM’s (the performance-based funding model’s) four guiding principles, two of which are pertinent here: rewarding excellence or improvement and acknowledging the unique missions of the different institutions,” the motion said. “Simply put, the funding model seeks to reward institutions who have better student outcomes with increased funding, not diminish the performance of historically black institutions.”

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