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Trump questions whether key funding source for historically black colleges is constitutional

President Trump talks with leaders of historically black colleges and universities before posing for a group photo in the Oval Office in February. (Brendan Smialowski/Agence-France Presse via Getty Images)

In February, President Trump invited leaders from historically black colleges and universities to the White House, a move they hoped signaled his support for the institutions and showed an effort to give them more clout in his administration. But critics had a more cynical description of the Oval Office meeting: a photo op.

Those naysayers got more ammunition Friday after the White House released a signing statement connected to the recently approved federal funding measure. Tucked away in the last paragraph, the White House announced that it would treat a program that helps HBCUs get low-cost construction loans “in a manner consistent with the (Constitutional) requirement to afford equal protection of the laws.”

People in higher education circles worried that the statement meant that the president was planning to get rid of a capital financing program that helps historically black colleges repair, renovate and build new facilities. Congress approved the program in 1992 after finding that “HBCUs often face significant challenges in accessing traditional funding resources at reasonable rates,” according to the Education Department.

“I would rather have Trump do nothing with HBCUs — not even know they exist,” Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has researched HBCU history, told The Washington Post. “He will see them as a handout. He doesn’t understand that he was given a leg up by his rich father. He doesn’t see that other people need help from programs because of past discrimination and inequity.”

Trump’s signing statement was blasted by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“Trump’s statement is not only misinformed factually, it is not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis,” their joint statement said. “For a President who pledged to reach out to African Americans and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive. We urge him to reconsider immediately.”

The White House said on Saturday that none of the objections cited in Trump’s signing statement signaled immediate policy changes, but were intended to preserve the president’s legal options down the line.

President Trump on March 22 met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House. (Video: The Washington Post)

Then, late Sunday, the president himself tried to clarify the signing statement, saying it “does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical education missions.”

“In February of this year, I signed an Executive Order pledging to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs to provide the highest-quality education; to ensure equitable opportunities for HBCUs to participate in Federal programs; and to increase the number of college-educated Americans who feel empowered and able to advance the common good at home and abroad,” Trump said in a statement. “My commitment to the above-stated goals remains unchanged.”

From MLK to Oprah Winfrey, historically black colleges educate African American pioneers

The signing statement was noticed by the United Negro College Fund, which told The Post it had an informal conversation with administration officials about the HBCU loan program. The takeaway: It’s too soon to worry.

“We’re not overly alarmed at this point, based on informal reassurances and just our own knowledge of how these funding statement get put together,” Cheryl L. Smith, UNCF senior vice president of public policy and government affairs, told The Post.

She called the White House’s statement part of a “mixed record” from the administration toward HBCUs since Trump took office in January.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s first visit to a school was to Howard University, the federally chartered historically black college in the District.

And in February, after the Oval Office meeting with HBCU leaders, Vice President Pence told them, “The president and I admire the contributions of historically black colleges and universities.” He also said the Trump administration is committed to ensuring that HBCUs “get the credit and attention they deserve.”

Historically black colleges and universities were created before the 1960s. Many of them are now struggling financially. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

But many were offended when DeVos issued a statement after the meeting that praised historically black colleges as pioneers of school choice. The schools were founded at a time of racial segregation. DeVos clarified her remarks the next day, making clear that African Americans had very limited educational opportunities at the time HBCUs were started.

At that meeting, Republican lawmakers met with nearly all the HBCU presidents, listening to their concerns and priorities. The outreach from Republican leaders, however, did not translate into increased funding for the schools in the president’s budget proposal.

After White House courts HBCUs, budget disappoints school leaders

Historically black colleges have often looked to Democrats as natural allies, but over the past 50 years or so, HBCUs have had bipartisan support, with relatively steady funding over that time.

Student and parent debt and low graduation rates have long been concerns for many historically black colleges, but their proponents say they are essential in educating black leaders.

According to the Education Department, three-quarters of all doctorates awarded to black people, three-quarters of all black officers in the U.S. military and 80 percent of black federal judges got their undergraduate degrees at an HBCU.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., the president and chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, praised the budget proposal in a written statement Friday. “Let me be clear: flat spending for HBCUs in a president’s budget that calls for a 13 percent funding decrease to the Department of Education is a win!

“… Not everyone is happy though — some are critical of President Trump because they believe he should have significantly increased the budget for HBCUs.

“Such notions are naive in the current political environment in Washington, now run by Republicans who’ve vowed to reduce the size of government.”

In a public statement Saturday, Taylor responded to the signing provision, saying the fund had spoken to the administration and was assured there was “absolutely no plan to eliminate or challenge this program.

“We have shared with the White House our assertion that the HBCU program is not at all a race-based government effort and therefore doesn’t raise any equal protection or due process concerns because participation in the program is limited to HBCUs. HBCUs serve some of the most diverse populations in this nation and three TMCF member-schools enroll more white students than black students: West Virginia State University, Bluefield State College, and Lincoln University of Missouri.”

The United Negro College Fund, in a statement, said that they had sought clarification from the White House, as well, about the statement, and received informal assurance from White House officials that the paragraph is not intended to indicate any policy change toward HBCUs and that the Administration intends to implement the HBCU Capital Financing Program.

“Nonetheless, UNCF urges the White House to issue an official clarification of its policy to the HBCU community, as the HBCU Capital Financing program has provided tremendous value to HBCUs and the students they serve over the past 25 years.”

They gave examples of how the capital financing program has benefited such schools, allowing Bethune-Cookman University to renovate a student center and provide new student housing, Johnson C. Smith University to build a new science and technology center and so on. The program, they wrote, by statute bases eligibility not on race but on “mission, accreditation status and year the institution was established. Today, 101 HBCUs qualify for this assistance, many of which have a racially diverse student enrollment, faculty and staff.”

For example, they noted, Bluefield State College in West Virginia is designated as an HBCU, but enrolls a population that is 85 percent white and only 9 percent African American.

“The provision in President Trump’s signing statement regarding this critical HBCU program may simply be lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget being overly cautious and perhaps not fully understanding the legal basis for federal HBCU programs,” the UNCF statement continued.

“However, these programs have been thoroughly vetted by the Congress and prior Administrations, and the new Administration must eliminate any doubt as to their Constitutionality. UNCF looks forward to working with the White House and the U.S. Department of Education to continue to communicate the importance of this program and others that positively impact HBCUs and the students they have served for more than 150 years.”

John Wagner contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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