BALTIMORE – Has Maryland satisfied its legal obligation to dismantle remnants of its former segregated higher education system from the state’s historically black public universities? As the nation kicks off American Education Week, that is the question at the heart of a case now brewing in a U.S. District Court in Maryland, the first of its kind in the state and the first of its kind in the nation to go to trial in 15 years. The case is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education vs. Maryland’s Higher Education Commission, plaintiffs are arguing that “Throughout history and up to the present day, Maryland has maintained a racially segregated system of higher education and has systematically and purposefully engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination that has prevented [public Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Maryland] from achieving parity with their traditionally White institution counterparts.”
Plaintiffs, who include alumni and students of Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), are seeking in excess of $2 billion in funding for the HBCUs as well as upgrading of their campus facilities and educational programs, particularly eradicating unnecessary program duplication.
The four HBCUs in Maryland are Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore – all of which are public.
The original complaint was filed in October 2006 after the state filed a report with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights alleging full compliance with the 2000 Partnership Agreement. The agreement was designed to ensure that HBCUs achieve parity with Maryland’s public traditionally White institutions (TWIs) by providing equitable funding after years of operating a dual educational system.
“Maryland attempted to mislead OCR into believing that it has complied with the Partnership Agreement when it had not,” said Michael Jones, a partner with Kirkland & Ellis, which is serving as co-counsel to the plaintiffs and handling the case pro bono.
“Maryland admits that it maintained a segregated higher education system years after Brown vs. Board of Education was decided and has violated its constitutional obligation to affirmatively dismantle all aspects of that segregated system,” stated Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a leading national legal civil rights organization also serving as co-counsel to the plaintiffs.
Defendants are the State of Maryland, the Secretary of Higher Education in Maryland, and the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) — Maryland’s agency responsible for establishing statewide policies for Maryland public and private colleges and universities.
The State is arguing that it has no legal obligation to enhance the HBCUs or to make their facilities comparable to the facilities at Maryland’s traditionally white schools. However, as recently as 2005, the Office of the Maryland Attorney General advised MHEC that it was furthering — and not remedying — segregation in violation of the nation’s civil rights laws. Additionally, Maryland’s Secretary of Higher Education has testified in the case that the state still has not removed all vestiges of discrimination and has admitted that the HBCUs are not properly funded.
“This case is absolutely necessary,” said David J. Burton, president of the Coalition and lead plaintiff. “Unfortunately in 2010, HBCUs in Maryland are still suffering under the weight of disparities that were not remedied decades ago.”
The U.S. DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Justice, and Maryland’s HBCUs are not parties to this lawsuit and none have taken a public stance on this case.
Pre-trial hearings are expected to be scheduled in December. A six week trial has been set to begin on June 27, 2011 before Judge Catherine Blake.
Along with Kirkland & Ellis and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, plaintiffs’ lawyers include the Howard University Civil Rights Clinic and John Brittain, one of the nation’s leading education discrimination attorneys.