Lawmakers frustrated over Obama plan to cut funds for black colleges

A bipartisan group of lawmakers and historically black colleges are questioning President Obama’s plan to cut a program he once backed that sends $85 million annually to the schools.

The colleges’ allies, including at least one member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and a Senate Republican, have said that the cut is coming at a bad time for schools that have long been under-funded and are now struggling through a recession.

The White House program has been sending $85 million annually to historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) for the past two years. The Obama administration has said it’s willing to let the program expire next year as it begins to fund more programs that directly help students. Department of Education officials have pushed back against criticism by pointing to Obama’s proposal to increase the maximum Pell Grant for low-income students by $200 to $5,550. Obama has also proposed increasing direct funding for the schools from $238 million to $250 million.

Yet the proposed net loss of $73 million in annual funding for the schools isn’t sitting well with lawmakers.

“That’s not going to happen,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) told The Hill.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-N.C.), who has 10 historically black colleges in his state, suggested that the program is far more worthy of federal dollars than other programs Obama is willing to fund.

“Cutting this critical HBCU program while at the same time continuing to fund programs such as the historic whaling partnership program raises the question of the priorities of this administration,” Burr said, referring to a $9 million program to promote whaling history in Massachusetts.

The White House said the increased Pell Grants will increase federal aid to historically black colleges by $3.2 billion over the next decade. A spokesman also said that the president isn’t cutting a program but is allowing it to expire as scheduled.

“This year’s budget provides increased funding to schools that serve this community through programs specifically for HBCUs as well as increases in Pell Grant funding which is received by more than 50 percent of students who attend HBCUs,” said White House spokesman Corey Ealons.

The HBCU program’s supporters said it’s one of the few that helps the colleges address a variety of needs, including keeping tuition costs low, defraying upkeep costs and helping fund research grants.

Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, noted that Obama as a senator in 2007 joined the Democratic-led Congress in supporting an increase in funding for the historically black colleges and universities and other schools that serve minority groups.

“These are communities of students and institutions that need these funds in very difficult economic times,” Lomax said. “Now is the worst time to cut them.”

Key CBC House members are trying to work with their colleagues and the administration to find a solution.

Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he met with an administration official and leaders from the schools last week.

Scott said he’s still studying Obama’s proposal, but added that the schools need more funding, especially for their buildings on campus. The schools were “vastly under-funded” during segregation, and the buildings are now seeing those effects, Scott said.

Obama had attracted earlier criticism from CBC members when his Justice Department said it would cap discrimination claims legally owed to black farmers at $100 million — a fraction of the nearly $4 billion that they are estimated to be owed. But Obama quieted his critics somewhat by augmenting the money through a more generous budget proposal.

Obama put out a budget request that included $1.25 billion — more than 12 times the cap of $100 million — to pay the claims made by black farmers.

CBC members said they also expect Obama will come around to increasing funding for historically black schools.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that will consider Obama’s education budget, said he was encouraged by the president’s proposal to increase the discretionary spending set aside for the schools by $12 million.

Jackson said he’s committed to raising the overall level of support for the colleges.

“HBCUs have been doing so much for so long to ensure that the doors of opportunity and higher education remain open to all students,” said Jackson. “I know that President Obama shares that vision and mission.”