New funding measure alarms supporters of historically black schools
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 lowcost 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 capitalfinancing 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. of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the chairman 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 on Saturday said 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.
“Like his predecessors, including President Obama, President Trump has identified certain provisions in the appropriations bill that could, in some circumstances, conflict with his constitutional authority and duties,” a White House statement said. “The brief, routine signing statement simply indicates that the President will interpret those provisions consistent with the Constitution.”
The signing statement was noticed by the United Negro College Fund, which told The Post that 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 statements get put together,” said Cheryl L. Smith, the UNCF’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.
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 logged her first school visit at 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 that “the president and I admire the contributions of historically black colleges and universities” and that the Trump administration is committed to ensuring that HBCUs “get the credit and attention they deserve.”
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 it 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, though, did not translate into increased funding for the schools in the president’s budget.
The appropriations for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions were not increased, Pell Grant reserves were diminished, and scholarships, technology and other investments HBCU leaders had requested.
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.
According to the Education Department, HBCUs award threequarters of all doctorates earned by African Americans, and threequarters of all black officers in the military and 80 percent of black federal judges got their undergraduate degrees at an HBCU.