BALTIMORE – More than a half-century after the US Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public education, a court will decide if Maryland is doing enough to support the state's historically black public colleges and universities.
A lawsuit brought by a group largely made up of students and alumni from these schools, and headed to trial Tuesday in a Baltimore federal court, accuses the state of repeatedly failing to fulfill promises to desegregate the schools.
The group claims the state's higher education commission devoted millions of dollars over decades to "traditionally white institutions" that offer educational programs duplicating those from the black colleges. The overlapping offerings have made it difficult for the black schools, whose facilities often aren't as up to date as the white schools, to recruit and retain the best students and faculty members, the plaintiffs say.
The state denies the allegations and plans to show at the trial that there is no inequity in funding between the four historically black colleges and universities -- Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore -- and the traditionally white institutions including University of Maryland, College Park; Towson University; and Salisbury University.
The suit is the first ever challenging Maryland's efforts in desegregating higher education, and the first anywhere in the US since the mid-1990s, when the state of Alabama agreed to pay $160 million to several historically black universities.
The linchpin of the plaintiffs' argument in Maryland is that the state, by failing to integrate the historically black schools, has violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids a state from denying its citizens the "equal protection of the laws."
"The state of Maryland has systematically failed to desegregate these four schools," said Jon Greenbaum, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who are seeking in excess of $2 billion in funding for their schools to break down what they said was the legacy of past discrimination. "Elements that trace back to the 1930s and '40s are still very a part of the state's higher-education system," he said.
The state will argue that the programs created at the predominantly white schools haven't steered students away from the historically black schools, said Alan Brody, a spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General's office, which is defending the suit.
"As the legislature has conceded, there's definitely work to be done," Brody said. "But we strongly deny that it rises to the level of a violation of the US Constitution, as the plaintiffs allege."