By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter May 8, 2017, at 12:38 p.m.
JUST DAYS BEFORE THE secretary of education is set to deliver a controversial commencement address at one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, the Trump administration is defending its support of the HBCU community after signaling it may eliminate construction funding for the schools due to constitutional concerns.
The president sought to quash those concerns over the weekend with a statement underscoring his commitment to the schools.
“The statement that accompanied my signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, sets forth my intention to spend the funds it appropriates, including the funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, consistently with my responsibilities under the Constitution,” Trump said Sunday. “It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”
“My commitment,” he said, “remains unchanged.”
At issue is one sentence included in a statement the president released upon signing the omnibus appropriations package: “My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender … in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment,” the statement read, including, it noted, the Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account.
That program, created more than 50 years ago when Congress first passed the Higher Education Act, provides low-interest loans to HBCUs to finance infrastructure improvements on their campuses. But to qualify for the capital financing program, HBCU organizations pointed out in the wake of the administration’s statement, institutions must meet criteria based on mission, accreditation status and year the institution was established – not race.
“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 United Negro College Fund said in a statement over the weekend. “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.”
The organization said it sought clarification from the White House and received “informal assurance” from administration officials that “the paragraph is not intended to indicate any policy change toward HBCUs” and that it intends to continue implementing the HBCU Capital Financing Program.
Even still, it urged the White House to issue an official clarification of its policy to the HBCU community.
The budgetary statement regarding HBCUs comes at a precarious time for the Trump administration, which has had a stop-and-go relationship with HBCUs.
In February, the president signed an executive order that moves the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities from under the Education Department to under the White House – something HBCU supporters say is crucial to elevate their presence.
HBCU supporters had hoped the president would sign a separate executive order that would set an aspirational funding goal for such schools, empowering them to be more competitive in the hunt for federal grants. But he did not.
Weeks later, 64 HBCU presidents gathered around Trump in the Oval Office for a photo-op – an image that went viral for an entirely different reason – but one that critics said was a perfect representation of the administration’s faux commitment to HBCUs.
Later that month, DeVos linked historically black colleges to her school choice agenda and lauded them for being “pioneers” in the school choice movement.
“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education,” DeVos said. “They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.”
Notably, HBCUs were founded and developed in a time of legalized segregation, when black students in America had very few, if any, options for higher education.
As such, the president’s statement about the capital development program was quick to stir opposition from members of Congress who support HBCUs.
“Trump’s statement is not only misinformed factually, it is not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a joint statement.
“For a President who pledged to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive,” they wrote. “We urge him to reconsider immediately.”
The statement also garnered an official response from DeVos, who is readying to deliver a commencement address – her first as secretary – to the graduating class at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“I am a strong supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the critical role they play in communities and in our higher education system,” DeVos said in a statement Sunday evening.
“I am happy to see the president reaffirmed this Administration’s support for HCBUs,” she continued. “I will continue to be an advocate for them and for programs that make higher education more accessible to all students.”
The president added that she chose the school to “demonstrate my administration’s dedication to these great institutions of higher learning.”
But the forthcoming address is garnering significant pushback.
An online petition started by alumni, which asks the college to rescind the invitation and calls DeVos’ forthcoming address “an insult” to alumni, students and their families, currently has more than 6,000 signatures. And school officials have been inundated with calls and emails criticizing the commencement speaker pick.
“Let’s not be fooled by wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Trinice McNally, program manager at the National Black Justice Coalition and Bethune-Cookman alumnus, told The Grio.”We don’t need any more photo opportunities from the Trump administration. We may need more financial support, but what we don’t need is an insult and sheer embarrassment to educators worldwide to step foot on our beloved campus and insult our founder’s legacy.”
Bethune-Cookman President Edison Jackson is standing by his decision, arguing that students should be exposed to people with differing political views.
The U.S. is home to at least 100 historically black colleges that enrolled about 294,000 students in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The schools enrolled 8 percent of all black students and awarded roughly 15 percent of all the bachelor’s degrees earned by black students.
Notably, the spending bill that Trump’s statement addresses included a handful of perks for the HBCU community, including the restoration of the year-round Pell grant, which provides tuition assistance up to $5,920 for low- and middle-income students.
Congress eliminated in 2011 what’s known as the summer Pell, or third-semester Pell, in a budget-cutting move, and HBCU officials have been pushed hard for its restoration as 70 percent of its students receive a Pell grant.
The spending bill also included increases in funding for two programs that help disadvantaged students get into college, TRIO and GEAR UP, which garnered a boost of $50 million and $17 million, respectively.
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