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Maryland General Assembly authorizes $580 million for state’s historically black colleges and universities

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to provide the state's historically black colleges and universities $580 million over 10 years in an effort to end a 13-year-old lawsuit. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Maryland General Assembly has approved legislation providing $580 million over 10 years to the state’s four historically black colleges and universities, a major step toward ending a 13-year-old lawsuit over inequitable funding of the schools.

In a unanimous vote Sunday, the state Senate passed the bill, which had cleared the House of Delegates by a 129-to-2 vote. The legislation would fund scholarships, faculty, academic programs and marketing at Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Maryland House Speaker Jones pushes bill to force settlement of HBCU lawsuit

Funding is contingent on the state finalizing an agreement with the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, a group of alumni from the historically black institutions.

“The HBCU case has been an ongoing issue and underscored the marked inequity that exists in our higher education system,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who introduced the bill, said Monday in a statement. “We have taken the necessary action to eliminate the vestiges of program duplication and level the playing field for all students.”

The bill heads to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for signing.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for the governor, said Hogan will consider the measure when it reaches his desk.

Hogan and his predecessors have been at odds with the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland over the protracted legal battle. Jones exerted political muscle to force a settlement, as negotiations between the state and the coalition stalled after several failed rounds of court-ordered mediation.

Maryland Gov. Hogan makes a ‘final’ offer of $200 million to settle lawsuit involving historically black schools

In September, the coalition sought to resolve the case with a $577 million settlement. An attorney for Hogan countered with what he described as a final offer of $200 million, which would be divided over 10 years among the four schools.

Lawmakers derided Hogan’s proposal as a lowball offer. They said it was far less than the $1 billion estimate of what it would cost to bring parity to the state’s historically black institutions. The alumni coalition asked for less than Mississippi paid — when accounting for inflation — in a similar case that was settled for more than $500 million in 2002, lawmakers said.

Jones urged Hogan in October to accept the coalition’s offer and resolve what she called a “stain on the national reputation of Maryland’s higher education system.”

The governor told the speaker he had to protect Maryland’s finances as the state faces a $5 billion cash shortfall between fiscal 2021 and 2024. In a letter to Jones, Hogan encouraged her and other lawmakers to find a way to fund a settlement to their liking. Jones, the first African American to serve as Maryland House speaker, announced her bill in February.

Attorneys for the coalition, which sued Maryland in 2006, praised the General Assembly for its overwhelming support.

“This is truly historic,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is representing the coalition alongside the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. “We applaud lawmakers for putting in place bipartisan legislation that can bring overdue relief for HBCUs in Maryland.”

Maryland is being asked to atone for policies the coalition says have undermined the state’s historically black institutions. Years of allowing other state colleges to duplicate programs that once attracted a diverse student body to the four schools has impeded enrollment. Advocates say that although state spending has increased, establishing parity within the public university system requires greater investment.

Maryland appealed a 2017 court order to establish a set of unique programs at each school and provide additional funding for marketing and scholarships. The case remains in the hands of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has yet to rule. But Maryland lawmakers hope the legislation will resolve the case without further legal intervention.

“It’s my hope [Hogan] will do what’s right and sign this [legislation] into law, considering that we have been fighting for this for so long,” Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), president of the black caucus, said. “He has said that should a bill come across his desk, he would sign it. And we have done just that.”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.